Up until now we’ve only seen shapes filled with one flat colour, but that is soon to change. Whether you like it or not, almost nothing in the real world is just a single flat, evenly coloured surface. Every object has a certain texture, a certain look and feel created by the bumps and grooves in its surface. The material of which objects are made, as well as the process through which it was made, are the reason you’ll rarely find two identical objects, even when they have the same form. For example, a ball of glass will look very different from a ball used to play soccer.
Not only do textures increase the richness, beauty and interestingness of a design, they also make it feel more realistic, natural, and comfortable. Even sharp textures in a design (perhaps used to convey a sense of violence or danger) are deemed better than no texture at all. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should start applying as much special textures as you can to all elements. As always, contrast between areas of texture and no texture (or other textures) is the best way to go. Instead, I want to talk you through all the different types of textures and what feelings they evoke.
Three Types of Texture
In general, we can put a texture into one of these three categories.
- Physical (or literal): Actual tactile variation on an object’s surface. Examples are wood, sand, fur, or canvas. It’s three dimensional, which means it can be felt, and the look of the texture is determined by how light acts on it. Rough surfaces reflect light very differently than smooth surfaces, glossy material looks different than matte, fabric can be nubby or fine.
- Visual: The illusion of real-life texture, created by our familiar points, lines, and shapes. It can’t actually be felt, but it looks as if it were real and tactile, and as if it has depth.
- Abstract (or implied): Texture that doesn’t resemble any material from the real world. This doesn’t mean that it’s random or ugly; it simply means that it’s not something you’d just find lying around as you stroll through the park. For example, a field of text is an interesting texture as well, just as a bunch of circles overlapping.
As you can see, to fill an element with texture, you simply need to combine all the basic elements we’ve already seen in an elegant way. You can base your textures on real life materials, or abstracted versions of it, or invent them yourself.
The most important thing to notice is that, if you’re working on digital design, you’ll always start with flat shapes and no texture, whereas in product design every material you’ll use has a default texture attached to it. This means that different mediums ask for a different approach towards textures; with one you’ll have to be careful about the textures that come with your materials, and try to minimize their conflicts, while the other requires you to actively think would this benefit from a texture?
Feeling the Texture
Texture can be used to establish a mood, or convey a sense of physical presence. Every texture adds richness and detail to any composition, but its impact and power depend on the surrounding textures. Textures add overall surface quality, as well as reward the eye when viewed up close.
Rough textures are visually active and kinetic. Smooth textures are passive and calm. Other characteristics of textures depend on the characteristics of the elements involved (lines and shapes), as well as the material that is being used or visually replicated. Wood always has a comfy and natural feeling to it, while metal is harsher and colder. Typography, perhaps, has the most interesting and varied texture of all – if, and only if, you apply it well.
You could look at texture as being descriptive adjectives in visual communication. Appropriate and meaningful texture can give the simplest visual element resonance and a spark of life. Effective use of texture can connect a variety of emotions and messages to simple shapes.
Of course, there isn’t one golden method to create every texture. Some textures have a high degree of contrast and are built from relatively large elements; others are low contrast and have a fine, delicate grain created from lots and lots of small elements.
A good texture is one with a familiar and recognizable pattern, but enough variation to not make it look too artificial, formal or cold. Confusion is bad, but “perfect regularity” – continual, relentless repetition – is even more horrifying. Life needs a mixture, a balance between regularity and chaos.
Therefore, the best way to create a texture is by building it from the ground up, overlapping layers and layers of the same set of elements.
Because of that, creating physical textures is a result of, for example, adding multiple brushstrokes on top of each other, or putting several layers of the same material on top of each other in different ways. Non-physical textures can be created by establishing a basic, recurring shape or line, and copying multiple times, slightly adjusting it in scale, rotation and placement every time. Of course, there’s also always the option of using images as textures, although it might be hard to incorporate them well into a design.
Depending on where your light is coming from, you can use darker and lighter tones of an object’s colour to signal grooves and bumps in the surface. While this process often takes some time, the result will – more often than not – be a surprisingly realistic texture.
And lastly, because text is such an interesting texture, a popular method for creating texture (among designers, anyway) is by solely using text. The legibility isn’t necessarily important; the visual texture it creates is.