Destroy Designer’s Block with Contrast 101

by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady

The next time you’re staring at the screen, trying to will a broken layout into a contest winner, reach back into your art school files and pull out some notes on contrast.

Contrast is to design what salt is to cooking. Layouts are simply dull without it (and too much makes them unpalatable).

Contrast can greatly influence the legibility of a design piece. The use of contrast to control information utilizes the human ability to see patterns, notice differences, and fixate on anomalies. These components of perception and cognition can be manipulated to help the designer create structure, control hierarchy, sequence information, and ultimately create meaning.

Try these methods for creating contrast:

Contrast in Hue: Position on the color wheel can help determine the degree of contrast between colors—the more distance that separates two colors on the color wheel, the more contrast there will be. Complementary colors—those opposite each other on the color wheel—provide the greatest contrast. Analogous colors—those located next to each other on the color wheel— provide the least.

Contrast in Value: The relative lightness or darkness of a color (imagine where it would fall on a grayscale from white to black).

Contrast in Saturation and Intensity: Saturation refers to the purity of a hue. Pure, saturated colors are bright. They can be modified by adding white (tints) or black (shades). A color’s intensity can be changed by adding portions of its compliment (when mixed, complementary colors form neutrals or brown). A great deal of contrast can be gained by pairing a bright color with a neutral.

An object’s orientation (right-side up, upside down, sideways, diagonal), relative to other elements in the composition, can create meaning by focusing attention on anomaly. Orientation can also be linked with motion.

Position refers to the physical location of an object within a frame of reference. Dramatic or unexpected shifts in position can create dynamic contrast, or change visual focus. Alignment of position implies connectivity. Position, like orientation, is often linked with motion.

We often ascribe personality, meaning, or emotion to different shapes (as we do with color). Circles are more “fun” than squares because they remind us of things that bounce. Curvilinear, organic shapes are more natural, sensual, and creative than those that are geometric. And geometric shapes may allude to precision, math, or science. Contrasts of shape therefore engage both our ability to notice form, and our cognitive associations with those configurations.

Size has an immediate correlation with worth or significance. The size of one object compared to another can influence context, hierarchy, and meaning.

Shifts in tactile quality or pattern can create focal points, or differentiate information sets.

The optical weight of an object is a visual cue to its hierarchical importance. By altering this attribute, designers can make objects dominant or recessive. For example, line elements of various weights can be used to guide a viewer through successive steps in a set of instructions. A bold line might separate each step, with lighter lines used to subdivide information within those sections.

Contrast can be created by manipulating orientation, position, shape, size, texture, and weight as shown here
In addition to color, contrast can be created by manipulating orientation, position, shape, size, texture, and weight.

This grid shows a variety of color parings, with the bottom row achieving maximum legible contrast
It is important to provide significant contrast between type and its background. In the top row, although dynamically contrasting in hue, the type and background values are too similar. This creates simultaneous contrast—the type appears to vibrate, and is difficult for the viewer to read. In the middle row, value contrast between type and background is insignificant, creating legibility problems. In the bottom row, type and background pairings have exaggerated value and/or hue contrasts, making each pair easier to read.

Quick Tips
70 is the magic number: When designing with color, dramatic contrasts in hue and value, saturation, and brightness make for the most legible message. This simple rule addresses a great many vision problems, from aging to color blindness. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) best practice suggests a 70 percent contrast between an object (type or icon) and its background.

Go grayscale: When designing in color, do a quick check of value contrast by turning your monitor to grayscale or printing to a grayscale printer. If graphic elements and typography appear to blend together, adjust the colors accordingly to create more contrast.

Less and more: You don’t need to incorporate every form of visual contrast to create a dynamic layout. Instead, pick a single contrast pair and really maximize the concept (for example, turn big/small into huge/tiny).

Dig Deeper!
1. This parse is excerpted from The Information Design Handbook by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady

2. The Society for Environmental Graphic Designers (SEGD) provides white papers, courses, and publications that make the ADA guidelines (like the value contrast quick tip above) easier for designers to understand.

3. For more on the psychology behind human perception read up on The Gestalt Principles of Perception, which give support to many of the techniques designers use to manipulate forms and create hierarchy and meaning.

2 thoughts on “Destroy Designer’s Block with Contrast 101

  1. Lisa Portzer

    Thanks for the great article, Ken and Jenn! It’s always a good reminder to go back to the basics. I particularly liked and will use, “go grayscale” and “70 is the magic number”. I’ve been recently digging back into the Gestalt Principles, as well as studying about “neuro” design to learn more about why people think and make decisions the way they do. Fascinating stuff! I will post on the Graphic Arts Daily face book fan page. Keep up the good articles!

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