Contrast is one of the most important design principles to master.
It helps create a hierarchy of the most important elements and organize the overall design, as well as capture the viewer’s interest. Of course, overuse of contrast will make the entire piece look jumbled, disordered and difficult to focus on, which can be worse than having no contrast at all.
Many Kinds of Contrast
In design, contrast refers to countless different juxtapositions, including:
That’s just to name a few of the different elements to which a designer can apply contrast as a way of organizing and generating interest. As this is such a broad subject, let’s focus on just the first of those elements—color.
Of course, even within the overarching concept of color, there are different ways to apply the principle of contrast. Let’s look at a few of the most basic concepts, along with some examples of each to give a better understanding of how contrast works.
Dark & Light
The term “value” refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color. Pure black and pure white represent the absolute limits of this scale, with all other values landing somewhere in between. One of the most basic tools in the designer’s belt is to utilize contrasting colors to make one or another part of the design stand out, as well as to make every element easily visible.
One of the most iconic demonstrations of this principle was Apple’s mid-‘00s “silhouette” commercials:
These simple ads featured silhouetted figures dancing over solid-colored backgrounds, with the dancers in black and their iPod and earbuds in white. Despite their simplicity, these ads effectively launched the MP3 player market, made Apple a lifestyle brand and are still among the most influential ad campaigns of all time.
Beyond dark and light, designers can also play around with the relationships between multiple different colors to make different elements stand out. Each hue represents a different specific color on the color wheel, and over the centuries, artists and designers distilled a few go-to palettes that create pleasing color combinations around any point on the wheel.
Below, the logo for weather app Poncho uses three relatively light colors that are evenly-spaced around the color wheel to create a playful, cute palette that helped endear the mascot to users:
Other examples of classic color contrasts include complimentary, analogous, split complimentary, and triadic.
You may have heard of colors referred to as either “warm” or “cool” before. This refers to the color’s temperature, with all colors being considered one of the two depending where they rest on the color wheel. In addition, there are also neutrals—black, white, gray, brown and beige all fall into this category.
Contrasting color temperatures is a great option for elements you want to stand out, such as a CTA button. However, you can use them in a balanced way as well.
The logo for software company Zoho, for example, combines an even balance of warm and cool colors to make each element stand out, but still look cohesive.
Also known as saturation, the color is at its purest and brightest when it is totally saturated. Using two colors with low saturation together creates a low contrast, while increasing the saturation will make the contrast between the two extremely intense and vibrant.
The logo for Chargebacks911 combines black with a very rich red color, creating an intense contrast. In turn, this helps give the company an image of intensity. The strategy appears to be working, as this Chargebacks911 review states the company stands out from many other brands in the payment industry.
Color is Powerful
Color is just one of the many ways a designer can go about adding contrast to their work. However, it is the first element of design one should attempt to master.
Once you develop a competent eye for color contrast, move onto the next element of design and try your luck!