You may notice that many times when designing it can be difficult to make things stand out the way you want them to. It seems that we are constantly toiling with our composition to make the right elements stand out. We fiddle with the level of opacity (transparency), we play with the colors to find the right mix of lights and darks, and we sometimes spend many hours looking for the perfect background image with the coveted “Goldilocks” amount of white space (empty space in an image often used for text or art). Do you ever ask yourself, “Why is it so hard to balance and yet correctly emphasize all of the pieces of my design”? If you have, then I have an answer, and that answer is a simple, but yet complex element of design, which is humbly referred to as “Contrast”.
Here is a short edited definition of contrast from Dictionary.com: “The emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things”. Now if that confused you more than it helped, I will gladly explain. Basically, contrast is the intentional act of making two or more things stand out from each other.
This concept is widely used in every area of the arts. Whether it be in music, when going from a chorus to a bridge, or in photography to make an object the emphasis by using the background to further pronounce the main object or focal point, contrast is used everywhere. Our God, who created heaven and earth, invented the concept of contrast. He created opposite seasons, like winter and summer. He departs from evil and abides in righteousness. Even through His death, He gave us life. Perhaps this is why contrast is such a powerful element, because it is in the building block of literally everything we have come to know through the millennia as a race, and throughout our own lives as individuals.
We can incorporate this concept of differences into our designs by many different methods that could never be covered in just one article, but I’ll try to cover some of the bigger ones.
When selecting a background you probably already gravitate towards light and dark natured pictures or colors. This is because text and artwork tend to look better on an opposite colored background because it creates a high contrast between the two. For example, if you are using white text or artwork, you most likely are not going to also choose a white background, or even a lighter one for that matter. You’ll want to, of course, pick a dark natured background to make those lighter colors standout. This is using the background to contrast your artwork. This is probably the most basic method of contrast that is also more often utilized than not because it’s effective, and it makes a point.
Sometimes this can work against you though. Have you ever noticed that your text/artwork just do not stand out the way that you’d like? It seems that they just lack that “umph,” if you will. One thing that can cause this is the level of contrast in your background image (the intensity of the blacks and whites per se). If the physical contrast of the picture being used in the background is too high, it will make the text look flat against it, and very hard to read. People often times use a shadow effect to combat this problem, but I advise against that as shadows, when used incorrectly, look “cheesy” and lower the quality of your design. I’d recommend lowering the contrast in the “brightness and contrast” settings in Photoshop, darkening the image (or brighten depending on what you’re trying to emphasize), or finding a new background image altogether.
Artwork contrast is more of a case by case technique, just depending on what look or design that you are going for. You can use this method of contrast to draw attention to certain text/artwork, or even to draw attention to the background when appropriate. One way to create artwork contrast is, if you have a few different phrases or words in a design, you can emphasize the main word with a bold color and then pick more of a milder color for the other words or phrases. Another way to create artwork contrast is to pick a lighter font (or typeface) and use that as your information font to put in all of the necessary details (that you often have to include in event designs) and leave the main theme or idea much bolder so that it grabs your attention first. There are many different ways and techniques to create artwork contrast that you’ll want to experiment and play around with. The possibilities are practically endless. Just be careful when experimenting with colors, fonts, etc. not to overload you design, sending your audience’s eyes all over the design. Be sure to keep that main idea as the focal point.
This method is exactly what it sounds like. It is creating contrast by experimenting with various sizes and proportions of any artwork and images incorporated into your design. When you go to the eye doctor, they put a tool over one eye and have you read the letters from biggest to smallest to determine the quality of your eyesight. This, in a way, measures your eye’s ability to contrast those little letters with the white background through means of size contrast. Upon looking at that sheet your eye immediately goes to that top line. It’s big, bold and brash. It demands your attention. As you gaze upon that list, you then realize there are more words on that sheet and your eye will naturally skim that paper until it gets to the bottom, analyzing it and the different sizes of letters used. This element is used in design all of the time because it is so powerful and effective! You can over magnify items in your design and partially include them to create a sense of grunge or abstractness, or you can minimize items to draw attention to more important information or art first and then, after that, the eye will drift to the smaller pieces wrapping up the design in a beautiful, well-tied bow of balance and contrast. The main thing to watch out for here is to not under minimize important information or to over magnify the other pieces of your design. The goal is to size things to create contrast without smothering the design or making it feel completely empty.
A good thing to do is to always look over your design and evaluate what you are contrasting in your piece. Ask yourself, “Am I emphasizing the right things? What could make my design stand out more? Could this design use more contrast?” With these methods, and by asking yourself a few questions, you will undoubtedly achieve more balanced designs by creating distinct differences in your composition.