Graphic Design for Beginners: Contrast

Picture this:

You're back in college, and your professor assigns some reading on the first day of class. He tells you the introduction will pique your interest before diving into the rest of the content. Since you really wanted to take this class and you're not burned out yet, you're actually a little excited for the reading.

Then you encounter a problem. You open up your textbook and find that all 700 pages are in the same font. Pages upon pages of size 10 Times New Roman start to make your head spin. You can't find the chapter breaks, much less the beginning and end of the intro you're supposed to read, because everything looks exactly the same. All the content is the same size, same color, and same formatting - it's essentially one giant block of text. You immediately consider punching yourself in the face because that would be infinitely better than trying to read anything from this book.

Graphic Design Principle #1: Contrast

You have just learned the absolute necessity of the first principle in graphic design: contrast. Things that look different from one another and add variety are visually pleasing to the eye, and most of us use contrast intuitively. For example, we add titles to the tops of our pages and sometimes bold them or use a different font or color from the rest of the content. We most often use black font on a white background because it's easy to read, whereas we know a color like pale yellow would make our eyes hurt trying to read it.

But contrast is more than just making sure something is readable. Psychologically, having an adequate amount of contrast helps us break down and process what we're looking at. Whether we are looking at images or text or both, there must be enough contrast for our brains to easily decode the information.

In fact, any time our brains are trying to process information, we experience what is called ego depletion. This is essentially the mind's use of energy in order to understand something. Amazingly, studies have shown that ego depletion uses up just as much mental energy as exercise does physically. So you know how you always seem to get really tired whenever you try and study for hours? Well, that's because you actually are. Your brain is literally experiencing fatigue from ego depletion. (Mind blown, right?)

So how does this relate to contrast? Let's go back to our example of the textbook from hell at the beginning of this post. Without any contrasting elements in that book - such as chapter titles, subheadings, pictures, bolded keywords, etc. - your brain is going to be on overdrive working to process all that information. We can almost physically breathe a sigh of relief simply by remembering that I made up that fictitious example, and you will (hopefully) never have to read a textbook like that.

This is really important because we humans have pretty awful attention spans. You have a few precious seconds to convey your message to your audience - whether you are giving a presentation, creating a flyer, or posting on social media - and a lack of contrast could make them need to work way too hard to understand it. They will lose interest, and you've lost your chance to make an impact.

You can think of it this way. How hard did you have to work to pay attention in your class with that really, painfully monotone professor? No voice inflection whatsoever. Or more honestly, maybe you gave up even trying to pay attention around day 3. Well, when you don't have enough contrast, it is the visual version of that professor's voice. If you don't change something up, people won't take very much time to try and figure out what you're saying because it's just too much work.

Let me give you a few more practical examples:

Presentation slides

Presentations need to engage your audience, if not wow them. Unfortunately, that includes your body language, voice inflection, content, and often a visual aid, and few people integrate all of them really well. In the example slide below, there is almost no contrast whatsoever. But most of us have witnessed a presentation that looks likes this, and some of you may have been offenders yourselves. The bullet points are full sentences which is too much to process in a short amount of time, and it's worse if the presenter simply reads them. Your audience will lose interest very quickly.

With a few quick applications of contrast, this now looks professional, clean, and easy to understand. Our brains can process this information much faster and with much less effort.

Contrasting elements:

  • Title: bold; bigger font size; different font
  • Content: short and concise; bold goals vs. non-bold descriptions; clear separation of each point from one another; more space on top and left of textbox to make it more different from title

Program used: Microsoft PowerPoint


Flyer/Advertisement

Flyers and other advertisements require you to grab the attention of your viewer quicker than almost anything else. We see an average 2,500+ ads per day, so you need to make sure you have at least one element that makes yours stand out from the rest.

This simple non-profit flyer has some contrasting elements, but there is no way this will catch anyone's genuine attention, especially if it's hanging on a bulletin board next to other ads. However, you don't need to have amazing artistic ability to make this look a little more attractive. Again there is too much "sameness" here, so adding some contrast can start to make this much more visually appealing.

While the new flyer below certainly isn't the most creative (and personally, I would spend more time making it really unique and catchy), it looks way better than the original. You may be thinking that you would never make something as unexciting as the example above, but unfortunately I really have seen flyers like it posted around schools, churches, and public boards at cafes. This new version at least makes the event name stand out, uses a big awesome image of pancakes that I really want to eat right now, and clearly gives you the other important information.

Contrasting elements:

  • Event Name: bold; bigger font size; different font; different color
  • Image: big and eye-catching; delicious-looking; breaks up top and bottom of flyer
  • Event Info: short and concise; bold info for quick glancing; "Donate" now in a box and different color to stand out

Program used: Microsoft Word


Instagram Post

Instagram is all about powerful imagery, and people have begun creating engaging and inspiring content by using words, quotes, and short phrases. However, I often see people use unreadable fonts on complicated background images, taking away the impact of their message. In a similar way, this patriotic Instagram post could be great, except that we can't really read the lettering. The two white stars reduce the readability of one of the primary words, and the lines get lost when they hit the white stripes on the flag.

The new version blends a texture with the flag to give it dimension and a little more color, helping "Let Freedom Ring" to pop against the background. After adding a vignette and some drop shadows around the lettering and lines, we can now read the words much more easily and have created a more powerful image.

Contrasting elements:

  • Words & Lines: bold; drop shadows
  • Image: texture blended into flag to add color and dimension; vignette to darken edges and highlight words

Program used: Adobe Photoshop


Final Thoughts

Contrast is an important component to creating visual content, and you should check to see if your project has enough of it. Now that you know more about this graphic design principle and can identify possible areas where contrast is an issue, you can take steps to making your piece more visually interesting. This should help ease some of those moments where you're staring at your project with no idea why it looks slightly "off" and no clue how to make it better.

I hope this helps you now and in the future. Start putting it use and feel free to ask questions!

Peace,
Emma