Light is a constant source of kinetic energy, ever-changing on the infinite continuum of the day into night. It is also an essential design element is visual communication because it fundamentally allows us to ‘see’ and visually experience our world as we know it.
In visual communications, it can be used to express a sensation of light, a source of light or illumination, a representation of it, or an awareness of it on elements in a graphic composition.
Technically, light is defined as electromagnetic radiation of wavelengths that are visible to the human eye. It also refers to other wavelengths that are not detectable by the eye such as ultraviolet (UV) and infrared.
Let There Be Light
In the fifth century, the Greeks recognised a direct link between the human eye and how we see objects. Earlier thinking was that there was a visual ‘fire’ or glow emanating from the human eye that allowed us to see. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle rejected this premise by concluding ‘if vision were produced by means of a fire emitted by the eye, like the light emitted by a lantern, why then are we not able to see in the dark?’
In the history of fine arts, the visual representation of light has inspired generations of artists and designers. One only needs to consider the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Claude Monet, and George Seurat to understand how these visionaries captured and used it subtly, effectively, and meaningfully. In photography, the work of Ansel Adams and Robert Mapplethorpe provides the same insights.
You can determine how light ultimately influences and affects two-dimensional design elements in any composition. For example, it can be illusory by overlapping a shape or form with colour, shade, tone, and texture, creating a sense of transparency or opacity. This graphic effect creates the appearance that light is coming through each of these elements, or it can be completely opaque and prevent light from appearing through another shape or form.
It can also create the illusion of a third dimension on a two-dimensional surface through the use of shadow. This is achieved by carefully determining where a light source is located above, below, behind, or beside compositional elements.
Light also assists with another design principle – contrast – allowing us to perceive a broad range of colours and tones from bright to dark. In addition to creating the illusion of three-dimensionality, light is critical for creating the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional plane. It is an essential element in any three-dimensional space where there is a need to emphasise objects and forms, such as in a retail display or museum exhibition.
It is also a critical and essential element, property, and dimension of colour, defined as a reflection and how we perceive the brightness of any colour within the spectrum. The amount of light in a colour has a direct connection to its amplitude, strength, and visual impact. Other visual effects, such as shadow and contrast, are visually perceived as varied levels on a scale from bright to dark.
Go Home and Get Your Shinebox
The element of light is directly connected to other visual characteristics such as brilliance, chiaroscuro, fluorescence, gradient, luminosity, pearlescence, reflection, refraction, value, shade, tint, and tone.
Light provides you with the essential means to understand other visual elements, principles, and techniques such as colour, shape, form, movement, texture, perspective, shading, motion, visual acuity, and depth perception. It is a critical element of visual communications for obvious reasons. Without it, the phenomena of visual perception and understanding would not exist.
Light is also a critical element for creating animation and visual illusions. If you want to try and put these light principles into practice with ease, check out our free Pre-made Animation template and Animation Asset collection.