A fresh look at design basics, coming May 2008
Figure/ground relationships shape visual perception. People are accustomed to seeing the background
as passive and unimportant relation to a dominant
A figure (form) is always seen in relation to what su-
rrounds it (ground, or background)–letters to a page, a
building to its site, a sculpture to the space within it
and around it, the subject of a photograph to its setting
and so on. A black shape on a black field is not visible;
without separation and contrast, form dissapears.
subject.Yet visual artists quickly become attuned to the
spaces around and between elements, discovering their
power to shape experience and become active forms in
their own right.
Graphic Designers often seek a balance between
figure and ground, using this relationship to bring energy
and order to form and space. They build contrasts bet-
ween form and counterform in order to construct icons,
illustrations,logos,compositions, and patterns that stimu-
late the eye. Creating figure/ground tension or ambiguity
adds visual energy to an image or mark. Even subtle
ambiguity can invigorate the end result and shift its
direction and impact.
Figure/ground also known as positive and nega-
tive space, is at work in all facets of graphic design.
In the design of logotypes and symbols, the distillation
of complex meaning into simplified but significant form
thrives on the taut reciprocity of figure and ground. In
posters, layouts, and screen designs, what is left out
frames and balances what is built in. Similarly, in time-
based media,including multipage books, the insertion
and distribution of space across time affects perception
The ability to create and evaluate effective figu-
re/ground tension is an essential skill for graphic de-
signers.Train your eye to carve out white space as you
compose with forms. Learn to massage the positive and
negative areas as you adjust the scale of images and
typography. Look at the shapes each element makes and
see if the edges frame a void that is equally appealing.
Notice how as the value of a text block becomes darker,
its shape becomes more defined when composed with
Recognizing the potency of the ground, designers
strive to reveal its constructive necessity. Working with
figure/ground relationships gives designers the power to
Stable, Reversible, Ambiguous a stable figu-
re/ground relationship exits when a form or figure stands clearly apart from its background. Most photography finctions according to this principle, there someone or something is featured within a setting.
Reversible figure/ground occurs when positive and
negative elements attract our attention equally and alter-
nately, coming forward, then receding, as our eye per-
ceives one first as dominant and next as subordinate.
Reversible figure ground motifs can be seen in the cera-
mics, weaving, and crafts of cultures around the globe.
Images and compositions featuring ambiguous
figure/ground challenge the viewer to find a focal point.
Figure is enmeshed with ground, carrying the viewer's
eye in and around the surface with no discernable
assignment of dominance. The Cubist paintings of
Picasso mobilize this ambiguity