Contrast as a Principle of Design

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  • 0:05 Principles of Graphic Design
  • 1:01 Contrast as a Principle
  • 2:07 Contrast in Graphic Design
  • 3:03 Types
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Contrast is important in all art, but it's one of the most important tools available to graphic designers. In this lesson, we'll see why the principle of contrast matters in design and talk about how to use it.

Principles of Graphic Design

Most artists begin a project with a specific goal in mind: make something that looks good. This can often become an exercise of creating art for the sake of art, a pure expression of the quest for aesthetic perfection. But how do you actually know if something looks good? Humans have a pretty consistent baseline that determines the aesthetic value of something. Add on the cultural biases that teach us how to interpret images, and we can easily deconstruct art into elements and principles of design that explain why something looks good.

This is important to any artist. However, it takes on a special meaning for graphic designers. Generally, your job is not just to make a piece of art that looks good, but to make something look so good that consumers want to purchase it. It's not just art for art's sake; it's art with a clear agenda. So, the elements and principles of design are crucial to the success of a graphic designer.

Contrast as a Principle

There are many elements and principles of design, but our focus today is going to be on contrast, two elements of a design that are presented in opposite ways. Generally, the items or elements in contrast are placed near each other so that the contrast is as obvious as possible. This isn't something we often shy away from, because our eyes naturally like contrast. Contrast is exciting and dramatic and naturally aesthetically pleasing. It creates something we enjoy looking at, so contrast is frequently used in graphic design.

When used correctly, contrast can do a number of things. For one, it creates a focal point, or a spot to which your eye is naturally drawn. Contrasts are not equals; generally one element becomes more immediately visible than its contrasted opposite, giving it more visual weight and attracting the eye. Because of its ability to create visual hierarchies, contrast can also be used to produce a sense of balance and harmony, ensuring that items of various degrees of visual weight are distributed in a pleasing way across the page or screen.

Contrast in Graphic Design

All artists use contrast to create focal points and visual balance. This is common in painting, sculpture, and even architecture. However, there are some values of contrast unique to graphic design. For one, graphic designers often need to be direct. While a painting may present complex themes that take a while to absorb, graphic designers generally need to send a clear message as quickly as possible. Contrast creates a strong focal point, so it can be very useful in this sense.

At the same time, contrast can help organize information, both visual and textual. Do you need your audience to read all the text in a design right away? No, you need to capture their attention and present the most important concepts. Contrast can be used to organize textual information in a way that makes the immediate message clear to the audience while still providing space for the details.

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