Hack Your Way To Great Design: Basic Design Principles for WordPress Developers

Hack Your Way To Great Design: Basic Design Principles for WordPress Developers

If men are from Mars and women from Venus, designers and developers are definitively from different planets!

It’s true! Many developers struggle when it comes to design and vice versa. If you’re a developer who wants to improve your design skills, read on!

Basic Design Principles and Elements

Before riding a bike, one must first learn how to walk, right? Let’s learn some of the basic design principles that you can incorporate in your WordPress web design, then!

Table of Contents

  1. Hierarchy
  2. Composition
  3. Focal Point
  4. Colors
  5. Typography
  6. Flow
  7. Alignment
  8. A Final Note to Developers


Visual Hierarchy is the presentation of design elements and features on a web page in a way that implies relative importance. Visual hierarchy also influences the order in which the human eye perceives what it sees. It is usually achieved with visual contrast, size, or placement of the elements.

TIP FOR DEVS: Creating a visual hierarchy should be easy for you because as a developer you are an avid organizer – at least when it comes to code. Approach this task like you’re creating an HTML structure (best example is the hierarchy of headings, with <h1> being the most important <h2> the next one, you know the drill.).
Make a list of all the elements on your web page. Label each with a “level” of importance somewhere on a piece of paper (it’s for your eyes only). For example, your headline/catchphrase is usually the most important thing a visitor should see on a landing page. Make it a lvl 1. The second most important thing should be the CTA button – this is your lvl2 element, and so on. Make the higher level elements visually stand out and make the rest of the content (lvl 4 or below) visually less eye-catching.

The infographic below demonstrates some of the ways to create visual hierarchy. Just remember, don’t go over the top and mix everything up!

Ways to achieve visual hierarchy in WordPress design
Ways to achieve visual hierarchy

Visual hierarchy can apply to elements of the same type, which is exactly the case with headings in HTML. For example, you can have a button for stronger and weaker actions (like “buy now” and “read more”) if you just style them a bit differently.

Basic design tips for WordPress developers - creating hierarchy of the same element using different styling
Creating visual hierarchy using different styling on the same element

Note how the small things, like changing the border size and color or changing the weight and style of the font, can make a great difference. These are all super easy things to do in CSS.


The composition of a web page is the placement and organization of design elements according to basic principles of art and web design.

Creating balanced compositions is easier when applying the Rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. The most important compositional elements should be placed as close as possible to the intersections of these lines.

Applying the rule of thirds in WordPress web design
Applying the rule of thirds to create a more dynamic composition

Applying the rule of thirds creates more energy and better flow to your composition than simply centering your focal point.


Balance is the principle of design which prescribes how to evenly distribute visual elements. Our brains perceive balanced designs as stable and calm, while imbalance makes us feel uneasy and uncomfortable. Imbalanced design can make a stronger statement but it requires a highly skilled designer to do so in a proper way. In most cases, you should strive to balance things out.

Negative space

White space is an important part of your layout strategy. Incorporating negative space into a design helps reduce visual noise, increase readability, and bring balance.
Use margins and padding on your design elements to add negative space.

By adding negative space around an element you can emphasize that element. Look at a Google’s search page. It has a centered logo and tons of negative space around it. You simply can’t miss the point of this website.

Design tips for developers, a good example of negative space usage
Using negative space makes your content stand out

Now compare it to this.

design tips for wordpress developers - bad example - not using negative space
An example of bad design with too little negative space

This website is wrong on so many levels, but one of the worst things about this page is that it’s so cluttered with content you can’t even look at it.

Focal Point

Focal point or focus of a web page is the place on your page that draws the most attention. It should be the most important piece of your WordPress page or post. Your page should always have one clear focal point (I mean, just look at Google’s home page). Two or three focal points at most, on larger canvases, depending on your design and site functionality (number of potential CTA elements).  Make too many elements stand out and you will end up with a complete mess like on this page. If you’re an epileptic don’t open this link.

PRO TIP: For images and non-centered web pages use the rule of thirds to put the focal point in the proper place. Photoshop crop tool draws the lines for you.

Rule of thirds in WordPress design - Photoshop crop tool
Crop tool in Photoshop automatically draws the lines for you

Notice how the most important elements of this image (the hero’s face and company logo) are on the intersection of the lines that are forming the thirds. This is exactly where a focal point should be.


Color is an extremely important basic design element. Covering color theory and color psychology can take entire semesters in design schools, but don’t worry, we will keep it brief.

The most important thing you need to know is how to create a color palette for your web design.

Here are some tips:

  • Pick a primary color for your design.
  • Pick two variances of your primary color (usually a lighter and a darker hue of your primary color) to help you gain depth and achieve a professional look.
  • Choose a secondary color. Make sure it compliments (or contrasts) your primary color.
  • Pick two variants of your secondary color as well.
  • Add neutrals (whites, greys, blacks).
  • Never use full opacity black or white color. It’s too hard on the eye.
  • Using 3 accent colors is acceptable in some cases. Using 4 or more is almost always a really bad idea. Don’t make your site look like this!

Most WordPress themes have a built-in option to choose primary and secondary colors. This means that once you choose a primary color, the color of some elements and usually parts of the layout will change automatically. For a more detailed design, add variants of your primary and secondary color and use them for custom made details.

Use neutrals or variants of your secondary color for elements of lower importance in the visual hierarchy.

PRO TIP: Hack your way to a perfect color palette by using the color calculator. This simple yet amazing app will let you choose a harmony based on your initial color choice.

Color Calculator helps you to choose the best colors for your WordPress design
Choose color harmonies with ease using Color Calculator

Other neat tools for picking a color palette is Google’s Material Palette and the color tool app. Use Material Palette to pick a primary color and it’s hue variants and use Color Calculator to create harmonies. If you want to learn more about the usage of colors in UI design, the best place to visit is Material Design.


Flow or visual movement is used to guide the viewer’s eyes through the piece. Careful composition of design elements (lines, shapes, images, typography and negative space) creates the flow.

In web design, good flow is a bit tricky to execute, because most web design elements, like text blocks, navigations, sliders, etc. visually break the eye movement. This is because they are rectangle-shaped, which is the most boring shape, by the way.

Usually, (in western cultures) our eyes start viewing the website from the top left corner. This is why the most common flow types in web design are F flow and Z flow.

Z flow vs F flow design tips for WordPress developers
Z vs F flow on themes from WordPress repository

TIP FOR DEVS: Don’t stress about the flow too much – just have in mind where the focal point is, and how the viewer’s eye gets to it. Find a good WordPress theme with pre-designed layouts to help you with the overall composition.


Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed, says Wikipedia.

Without going into too much detail, here is what you need to know:

  1. Where to find fonts
  2. How to choose a font
  3. How to pair up fonts
  4. How to upload a custom font to your WordPress site

Where can you find good fonts?

Maybe there is one just waiting behind a bush? Well, to catch ‘em all, it helps to know where to look. The first place everyone goes to is the Google Fonts Directory.

Check out How to Use the Google Font Directory With WordPress and BuddyPress.

If you don’t want to use Google fonts like everyone else, there are many more font libraries to visit:






How to choose a perfect font for your website?

That’s an art in itself, but here are some suggestions:

  • Choose a font according to your brand’s aesthetics and mood. Obviously, you wouldn’t think of using comic sans if you’re creating a law firm website. In fact, don’t use comic sans at all. Even if you’re making comics.

Here are some other fonts which designers love to hate and which you probably shouldn’t use on any website. Helvetica is the exception here. Designers only hate it because it’s too good and they’re jealous. Papyrus, on the other hand, is a “definitely never use” all-time favorite.

  • As a general rule of thumb, use sans-serif fonts for headings and serif fonts for content.
  • Use handwriting fonts in extreme moderation and only as design elements or decoration. Never use them for your content.
  • For content, choose legible, non-decorative fonts.
  • Don’t mix up too many typefaces and font types on your page. Two is usually more than enough.
  • You can opt to use only one typeface on your site. If that’s the case, I strongly suggest experimenting with different font weights and styles.

If you’re interested in reading a lot more about font-picking, I suggest this good-old article.

How to choose a font pair for my WordPress design?

I’ll give you 2 tips on how to choose a pair of fonts that go well with each other:

  1. Use the same font family. Unlike human families, font families get along with each other really well.
  2. Choose two contrasting, yet visually complimentary typefaces, one serif, and one sans-serif. Establish a font hierarchy and use one font for the headings (that would be a sans-serif in 99 percent of the time) and the other for the content.

To get inspired, check out these 30 great font combinations.

How to install fonts to WordPress

Adding fonts to your WordPress theme is a fairly simple process for any developer.

First, upload the example-font.ttf file in your (child!) theme’s directory using a File Manager.

Next, link the font file in your child theme’s style.css using the CSS @font-face rule.

You’re done!

If you need help, check this detailed guide to Uploading custom fonts to your WordPress site.

As always, there are many WordPress typography tools and plugins to help you do it.

BONUS TIP: You may be wondering what the difference between a typeface and a font is. In theory, a typeface is, in fact, a font family. A font is a particular size, weight, and style of a typeface. However, nobody uses the word typeface anymore except posh designers. Make it a part of your vocabulary if you want to infiltrate their inner circles.


Alignment is a design principle you’re probably familiar with. You know… you used alignment in Word, you know the CSS text-align property, you used to date it in college…

Well, like your high-school sweetheart, there’s more to the Alignment principle than meets the eye. For starters, it’s not only a text property. Oh, no, no! Margin and padding are also examples of alignment you’re familiar with.

Remember, designers LOVE to align EVERYTHING. In fact, the best way to spot a bad or lazy designer is to see if all the elements on his design are perfectly and symmetrically aligned or not.
Alignment helps in organizing elements relative to a line or margin.  Usually, the margin is invisible and implied by the way your design is arranged.

There are two basic types of alignment principles: edge alignment and center alignment.

Edge alignment positions elements against a margin that matches up with their outer edges, while Center alignment places design elements so that they line up with one another on their center axes.

Edge and center alignment in WordPress design - tips for developers
Edge and center alignment in design

TIPS FOR DEVS: The easiest way to align the elements on your WordPress site is by using page builders. If you’re more of a CSS guy, don’t forget to adjust the margin and padding settings of your layout. Align elements left or right using CSS float property.

A Final Note to Developers

Let’s be real. Hiring a professional designer to whip up an amazing design is the tried and tested way to go in most cases. They can do all the creative (over)thinking for you while you focus on your strengths – code and functionality. Still, you might find yourself in a design pickle every now and then, and that is exactly when knowing basic design principles comes to the rescue. Training your eye and visual perception will undoubtedly make your job a little easier, and allow you to immediately recognize good or bad design. After all, we wouldn’t want a tacky color combo to ruin all your hard work behind the scenes.

Do you think developers should know basic design principles? Have you ever found yourself in a "design pickle"? Share your experiences, I would love to hear from you!

Hrvoje Miloloža

Hrvoje Miloloža Hrvoje is a writer, designer, content creator, philosopher, historian, online marketer, and aspiring web developer. Hrvoje is a member of the extinct species of Homo Universalis, one of the last of his kind. His trademark – turning somewhat boring topics into easy-to-read, enjoyable articles.