Enhance Your Designs with the Principle of Unity

By LaurenMarie

This seems like the perfect opportunity for a good quote.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

That Lincoln was a smart, well versed man. Unity binds together elements and strengthens what it supports. It is so in any aspect of life, even design!

What is Unity?

Unity in graphic design is what ties everything together. It is the sense that the design is consistent, it agrees with itself in each element, there is nothing sticking out that says, “I don’t belong!” Sometimes people refer to the principle of unity as harmony.

Unity is used to…

  • Harmonize
  • Tie everything together
  • Create consistency

Creating Unity

Unity is often created through repetition, or what I’ve defined previously as rhythm. Rhythm focuses more on the actual repeated use of these elements, where unity focuses more on the entire system; how well each piece contributes to the whole and how well all the pieces blend together to support the design.

Choosing a harmonious color palette to use throughout a design is the easiest way to create unity in color. Research established color theory as well as your handy dandy color wheel to help you.

Arranging lines consistently and ensuring a regular style, even if they are consistently inconsistent.

Scale is a difficult beast to work with sometimes, especially if you have multiple sections that need emphasis. Create unity through scale by making sidebar boxes the same width (can’t always make those the same height), headings, subheads, captions, etc. the same size and weight as each other, and keeping image sizes in a proportional scale to each other (or even better, to the page, too!).

Unity through shape looks like choosing to use all rounded shapes or all angular shapes, all geometric or all organic. That doesn’t mean you can’t use a square in a mostly soft, circular design, but perhaps you round the corners to bring it more in line with the overall shape theme.

Like with rhythm, we can assess space in terms of layout. Using a well-defined and flexible grid (think alignment and placement, too) is your number one route to unity with space. If things are too spread out, the design will definitely feel disconnected.

What kind and how much texture a design uses has a huge impact on the feeling of unity. A glossy button would look so out of place in a grungy design! Torn edges and distressed paper would suit a grungy design much better.

Similar values will really make a design cohesive. Having difficulty with your color palette but just can’t figure out why? It might be that you have a wide range of values present. Try making everything grayscale and see if anything jumps out as being too dark or too light compared to the rest of the design.

Examples of Unity

Galerie au chocolat

If you have the budget or you’re just really lucky with stock photos (or maybe taking your own!) it’s awesome to create unity through images. The same models or the same strong colors or the same photography style can go a long way in adding harmony to a design. This goes along especially with illustrations. It seems there is a much wider variance in illustration styles than photography styles, so be particularly conscious of mixing; it usually doesn’t work well. (design by Paprika)

Geek Squad

Creating a typographical hierarchy system is a perfect way to add some unity to a design. This will employ the elements of scale/size, value and probably color. Lucky Geek Squad employees who get an awesome manual like this! (design by Crispin Porter + Bogusky)

Stanford Lively Arts

I absolutely adore designs that have a style they can carry through every piece of literature. From the use of graphic flourishes to the distressed texture, font choice and type treatment, the system created by Chen Design Firm for Stanford Lively Arts is saturated with unity. It is particularly important to note that a unified theme also employs the principle of contrast; the two principles are not mutually exclusive. Contrast is seen in the use of individual principles of design (most notably here in texture, color and value).

How You Can Improve Your Sense of Unity

The most obvious step is to look at the design as a whole. Does anything stand out like a sore thumb? Why? Look at the elements of design to help you identify what needs to be changed. Is it the only spot of red in the entire layout? Is it the only headline that has a stroke around it? Is it the only circle in the midst of an obvious grid layout?

Next, go through your layout and identify what elements you’ve used that give it a cohesive feel. Did you consciously pick a color palette? Are your lines (implied or literal) all going in the same direction? Do you need to repeat any elements to make them fit better into the design? Remember odd numbers are best!

Think about your economy, too. Is there any element that is unnecessary? Eliminating even that borderline element will strengthen the unity because there is less that can tear it apart.

Finally, learn to use a grid. This would include checking the alignment of all your objects. If you haven’t yet, go pick up Grid Systems in Graphic Design
by Josef Muller-Brockmann. This quote from the introduction sums it up nicely,

If the text and pictures are arranged systematically, the priorities stand out more clearly.

And that’s it for the principles of design! If you want to review, we’ve been through balance, contrast, direction, economy, emphasis, proportion, rhythm (repetition) and how to apply them in your designs.

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