How to Use Contrast to Improve Your Graphic Designs

This one principle can help you draw readers in

Girl jumping in air at red wall

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Contrast is a design principle that occurs when two visual elements are dramatically different. The greater the difference, the greater the contrast. The key to working with contrast is making sure the differences are obvious. You can create contrast in size, value, color, type, and other elements.

Contrast helps you get your message across by:

  • Emphasizing what's important by directing the reader's eye
  • Aiding in readability by making section headers stand out
  • Getting the reader's attention by adding interest to the page

Keep in mind that contrast can be overdone. If everything contrasts highly with everything else, you end up with competing elements, which confuse, rather than help, the reader. So, be careful about how you put contrast to use.

Size

Large and small portions of spaghetti
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Placing two elements next to each other that are similar in every respect except size is one way to bring in size contrast. It can be big and small images or big and small typefaces, for example. Leaving plenty of white space around a small object is another way to contrast size.

Readers' sight will be drawn to larger items first, so enlarge the objects you want to emphasize.

Value

Clouds of water drops in suspension on a colorful background
 Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images

The relative lightness or darkness of two elements can create a contrast in value. Whether with shades of gray or tints and shades of a single color, the further apart the values, the greater the contrast.

You can use more than one contrasting element together. For example, large, white text on a black background, followed by gray text on the same background combines value and size.

Color

Green umbrella contrasting a sea of black umbrellas
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Use harmonizing, complementary, and opposite colors to create contrast. When you contrast colors, be careful with the value. Harmonizing colors (adjacent to each other on the color wheel) can appear washed out if there's not enough difference in value between them.

Consider the effect on viewers when determining contrasting color pairs. For example, bright red and bright blue contrast but can cause eye strain when viewed together.

Type

The word 'love' in red print blocks
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You can use size, value, and color to create contrasting typographic treatments. Make certain words stand out more by using one of the following actions:

  • Add bold or italics
  • Mix large type with small type
  • Combine serif with sans serif (non-serif) type
  • Set portions of text in contrasting colors or varying values
  • Change type alignment or spacing
  • Use complementary, yet differing type styles

Using typography strategically in your design is an art in itself. Learn the principles of combining typefaces, such as limiting the number of types to two or three.

Other Contrasting Elements

headless girl with heels, upside down, hanging off edge of table
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Other elements you can use to create contrast include texture, shape, alignment, direction, and movement. Remember, the key is to use a substantial difference. A font size change that's barely noticeable or colors that are too close in value may come across as a mistake rather than an attempt to provide ​emphasis or interest.

Use your imagination to come up with additional ways to use contrast. For example:

  • To offset tall, skinny columns of text, include wide or irregularly shaped photos.
  • In a series of static images, add one showing movement.
  • Make one element of a black-and-white photo pop by adding color to it.