Contrast is when dissimilar elements or features – such as colour, tone, or shape – are juxtaposed against one another. By providing the eye noticeable differences, comparative relationships capture attention by highlighting juxtaposition.

Contrast often exaggerates visual differences between compositional elements and thus enhances the message, making it more immediate and understandable to audiences.

The primary challenge here is creating a composition from disparate elements that come together as an orchestrated whole. When you juxtapose size, direction, colour, texture, or shape, you can create emphasis as elements contrast and complement one another.

This is evident in our logo, where the serpentine curve of the ‘S’ is contrasted by the sharp angular line intersecting it. By using contrasting shapes, the elements complement each other to create a sense of balance.

Defined by Difference

Contrast stresses visual differences through juxtaposition, such as bright colours against dark colours, or tiny elements juxtaposed with massive elements. This creates visual interest and directs attention to focal points, thereby organising the hierarchical order of a visual message. Compositions lacking in contrast may create visual monotony, neutrality, and potential organisational confusion.

Opposing design elements used in a single design intensifies the visual effect of contrast and creates heightened engagement. To make my high school visual arts teacher proud, I’m going to offer you an example.

Chiaroscuro – Italian for ‘light-dark’ – is a classic technique characterised by strong tonal contrasts between light and dark. It is seen in the works of Caravaggio and Goya where figures are often draped in mysterious light coming from outside the frame, which creates sharp contrast between light and shadows, giving the figures a sense of three-dimensional volume.

Complementary Elements

While many artists, photographers, and cinematographers that use chiaroscuro often work in black and white (or neutral colour tones), the use of colour as a contrasting element can convey or emphasise difference. Contrasting shapes can also produce a similar effect as conventional shapes seem more conventional when non-conventional shapes are present in the same design.

Contrast can be used in obvious and subtle ways within a composition to clarify or strengthen the visual message of a design. It can also draw your audience’s attention to certain areas and affect the figure-ground relationship by maximising or minimising its visual dominance.

One great example of contrast used effectively is in the artwork of television series, Mad Men. The sharp use of minimalism design and high contrasting colours reflects the overall aesthetic of this homage of 1960s advertising. Set at a time when television was shifting from black-and-white to colour, the use of contrast demonstrates the excitement of this era and the commercialisation of design.

Visually striking differences capture attention easily and contrast is a useful resource in creating organisational hierarchy. Be more aware of how your colour choices, shape use, and other design elements look in comparison to one another; note how contrasting elements can create something bold and engaging for your next presentation design. Contrast has the dual purpose of highlighting difference while creating a sense of harmony and balance through that juxtaposition.

Trying to design for print, but can’t get the formatting right? We’ve got free templates for Brochures and Posters, Magazine layouts, and an Ultimate Guide to Print Design to help kickstart your creative process.

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