At its core, figure-ground is the visual relationship between a composition’s foreground and background, between the object and the space it occupies. Figure-ground relationships also refer to illusion of making design elements appear to move forward or recede.
Figure-ground is a rather simple dichotomy that literally defines our ability to visually separate elements based on contrasts such as light and dark, black and white. We best understanding things in duality and our visual perception is no different. We see things are bright when especially contrasted against something dark or dull, and we understand the figure or focus of an artwork better if the background is plain and simple.
Effective figure-ground relationships are when the audience can clearly identify a figure as a distinct object that’s separate from the compositional background. Furthermore, figures are considered positive compositional elements, while the space or ground around it is considered opposite – a negative compositional element. The handling of figure-ground relationships is about finding balance between these elements that suits your design and messaging.
Different Figure-Ground Types
A simple figure-ground is created when coherent, independent objects are juxtaposed in a space functioning as the surrounding ground. In these compositions, figures are positive and active while its ground is always negative and passive. Figures are clearly visible and separate from the background within simple figure-ground relationships.
Figure-ground reversals are created when figures function as the ground while ground operates as the figure and focus. Inverting these roles is created by shapes forming in the spaces between parts of the figure. This type of figure-ground relationship can serve as a creative way for activating neutral white space in a visual composition. In simple figure-ground compositions the borders are perceived as limitless while figure-ground reversals bound and limit images.
Between the two poles of simple figure-grounds and figure-ground reversals is ambiguous compositional middle ground. Ambiguous figure-grounds are created when the visual relationships between the composition’s figure/object and ground/space is difficult to discern but fully comprehensible. Within this type of figure-ground relationship, objects usually share the same edge or profile.
The Beauty of Ambiguity
A classic example of ambiguous figure-ground relationships is Edgar Rubin’s vase. This iconic image shows black positive space form two profiles of human faces staring at one another while the inverse negative space forms a vase. The ambiguity of object and ground leave interpretation up to the viewer.
As Rubin surmised in his research, “When two fields have a common border, and one is seen as figure and the other as ground, the immediate perceptual experience is characterised by a shaping effect, which emerges from the common border of the fields and which operates only on field or operates more strongly on one than the other.”
However, if a figure dominates its surround ground, the clarity of subject can be viewed as boring design that lacks visual nuance. Toying with the borders between figure and ground is where creativity often lies, especially as contrast and scale play a key role in tricking audience’s eyes and perception.
Distinguishing Figure-Ground Relationships
The way we perceive things visually means people usually make sense of an image by taking its separate, distinct elements and combine them into a unified whole – often by trying to distinguish the figure/focus from the background. The human brain will often link shapes and object in terms of similarity and proximity, in order to gain a better understanding of the complete picture.
This tendency to simplify a scene into figure and ground (figure-ground perception) emerged from Gestalt laws of perceptual organisation. ‘Gestalt’ originates from the German word for ‘form’ or ‘pattern’, and this theory notes how people perceive visual scenes by determining figure from ground while understanding they’re both elements of a complete picture.
The characteristics that help us visually differentiate between figure and ground, are as follows:
- Blur – Objects in the foreground are often sharper images and more distinct, while objects in the background can appear blurry or hazy to demonstrate distance between the viewer and the object.
- Contrast – High contrast between design elements can help distinguish figure from background.
- Size – Our brains are wired to perceive larger objects as being closer and smaller objects as further away, particularly on a 2D plane where visual depth relies on tricking the eye.
- Separation – Any object that appears isolated from the other visual elements is more likely to be perceived as a figure as opposed to background.
Master of Figure-Ground Trickery: M.C. Escher
While Rubin’s vase has essentially become a meme for explaining figure-ground relationship, the true magician of figure-ground illusions was artist, M.C. Escher. His woodcut prints Sky and Water I and Day and Night (both produced in 1938), demonstrate the transition from figure to ground.
Both works draw the audience’s eyes across the plane (either horizontally or vertically) in order to ground similar objects and distinguish figure from ground. Escher’s sharp use of pattern and contrast helps create this visual illusion, making it a challenge to visually distinguish a singular figure or focus for these artworks.
Understanding the way our eyes and minds process visual information can help us become better designers and more compassionate towards audiences. M.C. Escher’s work challenged its viewers by manipulating human perception and going against artistic conventions of the time.
Today, it’s difficult pushing viewers’ expectations like that, especially when you consider how spoon-fed we are as an audience and how little we demand from art and design. Audiences expect things to be easily understood, which is why figure-ground relationships are so critical – they ensure we understand what we’re seeing at the most basic duality of focus and background.
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