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[Design] Contrast

category: Design | course: Graphic Design | difficulty:

Contrast allows our eyes to see; without it, everything would be the same, and we wouldn’t be able to distinguish different objects or elements in a design. Our eyes like contrast, which means it’s not only necessary for structure and clarity, but it also enhances the aesthetics of a design.

The Purpose of Contrast

Therefore, the purpose of contrast is two-fold. First of all, it creates an interesting and appealing design. Secondly, it allows the viewer to instantly recognize the organization and structure of the information within the design. By giving elements near each other completely opposite properties, the eye becomes interested in this design, and it shows that those two elements are certainly not the same and represent a different level within the hierarchy.

By placing a single, small black square somewhere on a uniformly white page, for example, we immediately establish a focal point and make the page more interesting through contrast. By placing something red next to something green (its complementary colour), it becomes even “redder” and more vibrant. A curve becomes even curvier when it’s next to something orthogonal and straight.


How to Create Contrast

If you are putting two elements on the page that are not the same, they cannot be similar – for contrast to be effective, they must be very different. This is achieved by exaggerating the visual difference of one or multiple properties of both elements. These properties can be anything we’ve already discussed; size, colour, shape, texture, typeface, orientation, and so on.


The juxtapositions between elements, however, can also be expressed in a more general way; smooth versus rough, geometric versus organic, organized versus chaotic, static versus kinetic. This way, by contrasting more properties, the effect becomes more apparent and immediate.

On the other hand, instead of using contrast to make elements distinct, it can also be used on elements that have some type of relationship to each other or belong together. As long as you use Gestalt grouping or other principles to show the positive relationship, the contrast will enhance this effect instead of working against it.


Pitfalls to Avoid

The contrasting elements should never serve to confuse the reader or to create a focus that is not supposed to be one. Contrast can be too light, which seems more like a mistake than a choice. Contrast can also be too heavy, which overwhelms the viewer.

Don’t be a coward, be brave! If you’re going to contrast, do it with strength. Avoid contrasting a sort-of-heavy line with a sort-of-heavier line. Avoid contrasting black text with brown headlines. Don’t be afraid to make words very large or very small; to speak loudly or speak in a whisper. Don’t be afraid to make your graphics very bold or very minimal, as long as the result complements or reinforces your design or message. If the items are not exactly the same, make them very different.


Contrast can exist on many obvious and subtle levels in a composition. Not all contrast has to be equally exaggerated, nor does contrast have to use only one property. The human eye can simultaneously detect contrasts in scale, value, shape, direction, and surface – as long as they’re large enough.

In Summary

Contrast creates emphasis, importance, weight, or dominance for an element of a composition. A composition lacking contrast may result in visual monotony, neutrality, and even confusion.

Contrasting relationships can be further articulated by combining elements to achieve variety and unity. The ultimate challenge is to create a composition made up of disparate elements that work together as one orchestrated whole.

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