A line is a basic element that refers to the continuous movement of a point along a surface, such as by a pencil or brush. The edges of shapes and forms also create lines. It is the basic component of a shape drawn on paper. Lines and curves are the basic building blocks of two-dimensional shapes like a house’s plan. Every line has length, thickness, and direction. There are curved, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, zigzag, wavy, parallel, dashed, and dotted lines.
Lines, lines, lines. Lines are everywhere in design, they are used to divide space, direct the user’s eye, create flow, create emphasis and organize all design elements into form. Generally, we don’t think about lines that much, but we make use of them quite often to visually communicate our objective to the user. The web is about communication, so using lines to communicate your message properly is important.
Communication — Line Types
First of all, a line is simply a fluid connection between two or more points. It seems like there is an endless supply of differing types of lines, from thin lines to thick lines, short lines to long lines, wavy lines to straight lines. But just like everything in design — or in life — there are some basic lines that we need to understand.
- Literal line – A literal line is just that, a line. It’s the visual or actual line you see.
- Implied line – This type of line is the “imaginary” line that your mind instantly creates by connecting dots or elements together. The best example of this is a dotted line.
- Psychic line – This type of line is another “imaginary” line that differs slightly from implied line in that psychic lines are generally used to create eye direction form one element to the next. A great example of this in web is a photo of a person looking in a particular direction, or a series of arrows.
- Contour lines – Contour lines are mainly used to define edges and create boundaries of elements. This type of line is probably the line type mostly used or seen in web design, borders being a classic example.
- Dividing lines – Dividing lines divide space and are commonly implied lines that are used to divide content areas such as the dividing spaces between columns of text.
- Decorative lines – This type of line is generally used to add something to an element: texture, depth, shading, function or any other decorative embellishment. The most well know decorative lines in web design is the underline under a text link.
Meaning and Mood
Lines are great for creating mood and meaning. Beyond the foundational line types above, other line types and styles can be used to create meaning and mood. Because there truly are an endless number of line types and combinations within, we’ll just take a look at the few main types.
Vertical lines simulate height and can create a mood of grandeur or spirituality. Great examples of this is the vertical line usage in churches and cathedrals where ceilings are lifted on tall vertical pillars guiding the eyes upward. In web design vertical lines tend to represent or create length and indicate to the user that there is more content below the fold.
Horizontal lines generally create relaxation or a calming mood, they tend to be quiet and subtle whereas vertical lines are more imposing and powerful. In web design horizontal lines are also known for their ability to organize content. When you look at gridded layouts you’ll notice that horizontal lines are the elements creating balance and organization — even though grids are generally laid vertically.
The majority of curved lines create familiarity and comfort, they also suggest relaxation. Curved lines are very easy on the eyes and are interesting to follow. Curvy lines are associated with nature — they feel very organic.
Diagonal lines are the greatest way to create movement and direction. Where horizontal lines suggest gravity and are stable, diagonal lines are more unstable. These lines don’t lay down or stand up in a restful position, they are in motion and you can actually create a sense of speed just by simply adjusting the pitch of the lines: the steeper, the faster.
Thick lines are visually powerful on the canvas, they represent power and respect. The use of thick lines can build a feeling of power and boldness. However, the overuse of thick lines can be very overwhelming and way too demanding so you’ll need to be careful and balance them off with other visual elements or differing weights of line.
Thin lines tend to feel fragile, but their subtle feeling makes them great for directing the eye without being annoying. They are also empathetic to the viewer and tend to create a feeling of comfort and tranquility. Combining thin and thick lines is a great way to create visual interest and hierarchy by balancing the visually demanding thick lines with the subtle, comforting thin lines.