Updated on December 22, 2022

Beyond Black & White: Contrast in Graphic Design

Contrast is not just black and white - understanding the importance of contrast in graphic design and exploring different types of contrast will elevate your design deliverables.

Whether you're working on a layout for a brochure or designing a band poster, establishing contrast is one of the most important things to consider in graphic design. Contrast attracts the eye, adds visual interest to a composition and can be in many different forms. Here, we explore four types of contrast that will elevate your design game.

What is contrast in graphic design?

Contrast in graphic design occurs when visual elements placed close together noticeably differ from each other. You might immediately think of color contrast such as red vs. blue or warm vs. cool. While color is an extremely important aspect of contrast, there are contrast of type, alignment and size to consider. 

advertisement for glasses displaying all 4 principles of contrast

4 Types of Contrast in Graphic Design

All forms of contrast play a vital role in whether or not you have a successful design that's appealing and easy to follow. For you to get a better understanding of these very important concepts, let's go in-depth into the four types of contrast so you can start implementing them confidently in your next project:

  1. Contrast of size
  2. Contrast of color
  3. Contrast of shape
  4. Contrast of type

1. Contrast of size

Having a contrast of size adds visual interest in the composition, and will help you establish the key elements in your layout so you can be sure the viewer is focusing on the right area.

In the image below, you can see a very simple example of contrast of size. Your eyes are drawn to the large text. It feels natural; something big beside something small will indicate the big item is far more significant.

small and large text contrast

Contrast of size is not applicable to just text; it can also be the images in the design. It's necessary that you find the areas in your design where you want the viewer to focus on. Try to lead the viewer's eye by having a variation in sizes. 

This principle is especially important if you're working with a very limited palate, because you won't be able to rely on color to help you establish contrast in your design or layout.

2. Contrast of color

Contrast of color is arguably one of the key principles of design and, as mentioned before, it's probably one you're familiar with. However, not all color contrasts are equally appealing. Note the example below:

contrast of blue and red colors

Establishing the right contrast of colors can make or break your design. You don't want colors to conflict with each other in such a way that it's confusing and irritating to look at. Looking at the image above, your eyes will probably start hurting after staring at it for even just a few seconds.

contrast of peach and teal colors

On the other hand, the image shown above here shows a great level of contrast between the background and the text color which is pleasing to the eye. It's crucial to work with complementing colors that don't cause strain. If you need help finding appealing contrasts, there are many color palette tools online to get you started.

3. Contrast of shape

Utilizing contrast in shape will allow you to deepen the level of contrast to attract more attention to an area. For instance, if you have a layout where all of the elements are made up of rectangles, but right in the middle there's a circle, the viewer's attention is going to go directly to the circle because it's different from the rest of the elements.

objects with curves (lamp) against square text boxes for shape contrast

If you examine the image above, you can see this layout is almost entirely made up of rectangles. The images are rectangles, as well as the different graphical elements. The thing that will probably stand out to you the most, however, is the lamp because it's the only element in the composition that isn't a rectangular shape, and your eye goes directly to that image first.

4. Contrast of type

Contrast of type concerns font. No matter what design you're creating, chances are you'll be working with some type of font. When it comes to typefaces, the other elements of contrast can all be applied, whether it's color, size or shape. 

When working with a layout, it’s best to discreetly vary the font used. Find places where you can create variation, such as areas of significance. Creating contrast of type can also mean using the same typeface, but utilizing both bold and light or regular. This gives you contrast, but also keeps that unification in your design, because you don't want to have a different typeface for every body of text.

font variations in a brochure for contrast

In the layout example above, you can see a great representation of contrast between type. While there's really only two different typefaces used in the design, there's a great contrast between both type and color.

Learn more about graphic design principles

Contrast is one of the most important principles in design, and it goes much further than just light and dark color values. All these elements of contrast should work together in a layout or design to help achieve the final look. 

Keep in mind that not everything needs a huge level of contrast to where it punches you in the face; it can be subtle. The next time you're working on a layout, make sure you're implementing these principles to create more appealing work. To learn more principles like this, check out Pluralsight’s graphic design learning path.