The five purposes of elements in visual design
Visual design is made up of elements. They are added for a purpose. Here are the possible purposes of each element in a design. Note that an element can exist for more than one purpose.
People use a design to learn something, generally. Elements like a block of text are a clear way to give the viewer information. Elements like icons or illustrations may be more abstract, but they still give people information.
Elements can help visually structure a design. A divider is a simple example: it tells people that “these elements are separated from these other elements”.
To guide attention
A designer’s job is partly to guide the viewer’s attention from one thing to the next. To draw their attention to the important thing. Lots of elements help to do this. Lines that guide the eye. Sprinkles that grab the attention.
People are attracted to some things and not others. A designer might add elements to attract the viewer’s attention in the first place. Sprinkles, photographs of smiling people, large blobs with striking gradients.
Unlike in some other forms of design, interfaces are interactive. So visual elements need to exist for people to interact with. Buttons and links, for example. If there’s nothing for a person to click on, then they can’t click on it.