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C.R.A.P. Design: Contrast

I was introduced to the idea of C.R.A.P. in my first quarter of film school. The class was intro-level typography.

Sean Anderson
Sean Anderson

I was introduced to the idea of C.R.A.P. in my first quarter of film school. The class was intro-level typography. I may have been enrolled in the school’s filmmaking program, but as with all higher level institutions, there were a handful of general design classes all students were required to take.

Amongst a handful of electives, I chose typography. I’m glad I did.

I may not always have the most rock solid handle of letter design principles, but I had a great time learning about kerning, baselines, and leading.

I think I have an affinity for objects that are so prevalent most people don’t pay them any attention. Letters and words are everywhere. Anyone with the ability to read takes them for granted.

How often do you stop and explore the intricacies of the way letters on street signs are formed? Do you ever think about the history of the typeface being used in the book you’re currently reading?

It’s something even I don’t do often and here I am writing a post featuring a whole lot of talk about letters.

Throughout the 11 weeks of that typography class, we learned about the mechanics of letters, made a “ransom”-style poster with cutouts from magazines, and even created our own unique letter.

It being a beginning level class, those projects came with instruction about what goes into good design. See, good design is an active process that requires dedication and concentration. Just throwing something onto a piece of paper or a screen is going to get you nowhere fast.

Unless you’re Jackson Pollock, but even he knew what he was doing.

There are certain qualities that help make a piece of work attractive. Four, in fact. Those qualities are:

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Alignment
  • Proximity

The word “crap” usually carries a terrible and sometimes stinky meaning. Who actually wants something to be crap? I’m talking about crap of a completely different sort.

In his 1994 book, The Non-Designers Design Book, writer Robin Williams goes into detail about the four principles that make up good design. These are the common ingredients that can help turn any work into a visually pleasant final product.

Principle #1: Contrast

Contrast is “the enhancement of the apparent brightness or clarity of a design provided by the juxtaposition of different colors or textures.”

Phew, dictionaries don’t make things easy sometimes.

Put in simpler terms, an object that stands out against other objects has higher contrast. Conversely, an object that blends into other objects has low contrast.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

High contrast

An image of a red fish against a black background.

This is about as high contrast an image as you can find. The bright red fish is seen swirling its impressive tail against a pure black background. There’s nothing at all in the background that is fighting for attention. All you see is the fish.

An image with high contrast completely dominates the eye. Your attention is focused entirely on the most important parts of the image. Everything else just falls away.

This isn’t done by accident. Designers employ all kinds of subtle tricks to ensure you see only what they want you to see.

The use of different colors (or different shades of the same color), shape, bold type, and size are all parts of a professional designer’s toolkit. If you ever feel yourself drawn to an image (or a song, a website, a cake, and so on), it’s because you were meant to be amazed by it.

Low contrast

An image of a mostly gray carved wall.

You may be able to just make out what’s going on in that image, but the way each element blends with everything around it doesn’t help.

The image is identifiable as a wall carving, but notice how the shadows in the recessed parts of the carving almost melt into the highlights of the raised parts. Every bit of the image is just one bleak tone of gray next to another.

What could have been a captivating image of an elaborate carving has been turned into a dull mess. It’s unappealing.

Worse still, the image is forgettable. I challenge anyone reading this to recall in a few days just what the image is depicting. I’d be willing to bet that you’ll remember that marvelous red fish before you think of that blah wall carving.

Contrast examples

Let’s take a look at some additional examples of using contrast in a meaningful and purposeful way. Remember that every time you feel drawn to a particular point in an image, you were being made to notice it.


As we continue in this series, you’ll see that good design is, in a sense, all about manipulation.

“Manipulation” may feel like an unpleasant word to use when there’s an audience involved with your work, but that’s the point of good design.

Don’t feel like you’re taking advantage of anybody. Revel in the knowledge that your audience is being affected by your work.

A strong use of intentional contrast is one such way to delight a viewer. High contrast images take command of the viewer and tells them exactly where they need to look.

There may be a use for muddy images, but it’s hard to think of one. Mostly they can be used as examples of what not to do.

If you can manipulate a person’s focus without them even realizing what’s happening, then you’re doing a good job as a designer.

Keep it different, cats.

On Pinterest? Be sure to pin these images.

Design

Sean Anderson

Lover of productivity tips, Apple devices, and vegan ice cream. Mostly, I'm busy petting cats 🐱 and dogs 🐶


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