Contrast as a design tool

Contrasts in life and in design

contrasts of colours“Birds of a feather flock together”, as the saying goes. Nevertheless there’s no doubt that many people can say from their own experience that they experienced or continue to experience most friction with the parent whose personality is most similar to their own. Relationship researchers have been looking into this topic for a long time and have found out that the secret of a happy relationship often lies in similar interests and values but different personalities. Interestingly, design compositions are very similar to interpersonal relationships in this respect: In order to appeal to the human eye, a composition needs to have a recognisable, consistent theme to hold it together and integrated contrasts to create and accentuate a dramatic effect in order to keep our perception vivid.

A good sense of harmonious combinations is needed to achieve this balancing act, with too much contrast quickly feeling chaotic, while too much consistency appears boring. But not all contrast is the same: In the same way that we can distinguish between shape, colour, spatial orientation, size, brightness and much more, various different types of contrast are also possible.

Light/dark contrast

Light/dark contrast is worthy of special mention, and achieves its strongest intensity in the combination of the non-colours black and white: It is in fact essential so that we can recognise shapes, as it is light/dark contrast that make it possible for our eyes to distinguish shapes. In painting, this contrast also allows for multi-dimensional effects to be created.

Through its combination of light material on the inside and a dark exterior, the foldable leather wallet from Mokum shows just how effective a contrast of light and dark can be. At the same time it shows that a light/dark contrast does not always have to be black and white, but can also be seen as a type of colour contrast.

Colour contrast

A very well-known and popular type of contrast used in design is colour contrast. There are lots of different possibilities here, both in terms of the quality of the colours (intense/soft) and the quantity of the colours (size relative to each other), but also with regard to how they relate to each other. For example, the complementary colour pairs (red-green, blue-orange, yellow-purple) mutually complement each other in a mix with pure white. Their luminosity is thus enhanced in combination with the respective complementary colour and creates what is referred to as complementary contrast. Warm/cold contrasts are equally dramatic, where warm hues are combined with cool shades in order among other things to create an impression of depth and to speak to the emotions of the onlooker.

Shape contrast

Shape contrast is a very dramatic tool that stems from combining sharp corners with rounded edges as well as straight lines with bending shapes. When used in a targeted manner, this type of contrast can create a dynamic effect and catch the eye. A good example of this is the Boskke Cube plant container from Boskke, which you can find in our garden category. The container made from sturdy, transparent plastic has clear edges in its outer, square shape. However, the interior, which houses the plant and the soil, has the typical cylindrical shape associated with plant pots. In this way, the see-through material not only gives an interesting view of the soil and roots but also shows the dramatic contrast between rounded and square edges. The design plant pot thus demonstrates clearly the strong visual impact of shape contrast, which makes the plant container an absolute eye catcher.

Quantity contrast

Probably the most complex contrast is quantity contrast. Its effect is based on the fact that different quantities e.g. of different colours, brightnesses and shapes are put alongside each other. The types of contrast already mentioned above are basically set in relation to each other using quantity contrast. In addition to specific numerical values, simple ratios such as a lot and a little or large and small can be used in theory. In practice, these quantities are often used intuitively: In design, it is these quantities that chiefly determine whether an image or an object looks harmonious or chaotic. The different relative quantities are used in a targeted way to create tension and vibrancy.

Contrasts create tension and vibrancy

It goes without saying that the above list of different contrasts as well as their effect and possible uses is not exhaustive. Contrast as such is a much too versatile and effective stylistic tool for that to be the case. It is our constant companion, not only in art and design but also in everyday life. Just take a look around you, and you are sure to see contrasts that make life appealing the more they jump out at you: whether in design or when choosing a partner or friend, in leisure time or even when cooking at home in your own kitchen. What is it that they say? Differences are the salt in the soup of life!


Posted on 26.08.2016

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