Design Basics: Creativity Through Contrast

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Welcome to the final installment of Macworld's Design Basics series. So far, we've covered the importance of proximity (placing related information closer together to form a visual framework), alignment (giving readers a hard edge for their eyes to follow), and repetition (repeating a color, font, or graphical element throughout the piece to give it a cohesive feel). In this article we'll look at the fourth and final design rule: contrast.

Contrast--the critical difference

The rule of contrast is simply this: If you have two dissimilar design elements in your piece, make those elements different--very different. Contrast is all about opposites: Pair the big with small, tall with short, thick with thin, color with white, and so on. For example, if you've used a slim, scripty font, pair it with one that's big and thick. You can also introduce contrast through color: If your ad is predominately white, add a black or brightly colored background to an important area (the URL, perhaps) or make the text a bold color.

Not only does contrast create visual interest, it also draws the reader's eye. In most design situations--an ad, flyer, billboard, or direct mail--you've got about five seconds, if that, to catch the reader's attention. By being brave and bold with the contrast in your design, you increase the odds that readers are ensnared long enough to learn about your product, service, or event.

When experimenting with font contrast, it's helpful to see previews in the font family menu of the program you're using. If you're using Adobe Photoshop (CS and later), choose Photoshop -> Preferences -> Type. In the resulting dialog box, click the Font Preview Size checkbox and then pick a preview size from the pop-up menu.

Using the party ad you may be familiar with from this series, notice how you can introduce eye-catching contrast by reversing the part of the text color to white and placing a blue box behind it. If you're using InDesign, you can create the blue box with the Rectangle tool and then place it behind the text box by selecting it and choosing Arrange -> Send to Back.

As you can see from the before and after example below, our party ad has improved yet again and is arguably more eye-catching to potential customers.

Another idea for introducing creative contrast is to use a striking photo at a large size, as shown here. Also, the rather unusual headline of "Meow." catches the reader's eye because it's unexpected and out of the ordinary.

Above all, contrast is a great excuse to get creative and think outside the box. Heck, even white space can introduce contrast if there's a large enough swath of it!

Now that you've learned what a huge difference the four basic design principles can make, commit them to memory. A handy way to do it is to rearrange the rules and notice what the first letter of each word spells--that's what your designs may look like if your forget to follow these principles.

Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity

For a more in-depth treatment of this topic and the other design basics we covered in this series, I urge you to pick up a copy of Robin Williams' book, The Non-Designer's Design Book (Peachpit Press), from which these concepts were derived.

May the creative force be with you.

[Lesa Snider, founder of, is the chief evangelist of, author of Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2009), and several video training titles from both and]

This story, "Design Basics: Creativity Through Contrast" was originally published by Macworld.

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