Tag Archives: Line

Design Principle – Contrast

Contrast image

Contrast is one of my favorite Design Principles because it is completely accessible and so very dynamic. In school you will recall being asked to “compare and contrast” two ideas or opinions. We have an intuitive understanding of contrast as opposites, when we see it. In politics, there is no debate without contrasting opinions. In life, change is contrast happening over time.

In designing, the idea is to use the Principles intentionally to change and effect the Elements of Design. Contrast is all about examining or depicting difference. Contrasts, especially those that are unexpected, create vibrancy, draw attention to the subject. Visual contrast creates interest and contributes to a sense of movement or balance (another Design Principle). Contrast defines edges. Uniformity is the absence of contrast. Incongruity is unexpected contrast.

Contrast does not have mean diametric opposites, however. Just like the Tonal Scale where contrast is inherent in defining it, degrees of contrast are possible. Contrast is always comparative – about the relationship between two or more values. Sometimes the degree of contrast defines a style.

One example is the 1940’s film genre Film Noir. The style is defined today by the deep contrast in tonal values of the visuals – with many deep shadows. Shadows will be cast on characters’ faces, highlighting their emotional duality and ambivalence. The audience is left with uncertainty, since every character seems to be both dark and light. The other part of Film Noir mis-en-scene will be the sense of deep shadows in the distance, much of the action taking place at night, in poorly lit cities. The visual style underscores the drama of the story, often crime dramas or mysteries, and characters’ journeys who often represent the “seamy underbelly” of society, or are engaged in some kind of deceit.

This visual style of deep shadows is known as chiaroscuro in painting, a characteristic of the High Renaissance and Baroque eras, among other periods. Painters and sculptors alike were interested in deep folds, faces looming out of dark backgrounds, and consistent looking light sources.

Shabby Chic and prim styles have an intentional lack of contrast. Blurred edges, faded prints or text, distressing and age. If it’s too white, it’s dipped in tea. If it’s too dark, it’s washed. If it’s too shiny, it’s sanded.

I’ve always been intrigued by Dazzle Painting – a high contrast method of camouflage. The key is distance. In nature high contrast often means a warning.

Dazzle painted battleships

Dazzle Camouflage obfuscates the shape

Let’s look at how contrast works with other Elements of Design.


Complimentary opposites, the colors opposite each other on the color wheel would be a Dual color scheme. Using three colors in an equilateral triangle is a Triadic scheme, while using four colors from the points of a square is Tetradic. Analogous colors have low contrast in hue, but might have high contrast when tonal values are considered.

What do you want the colors to convey? What ideas or emotions? Are you concerned with beauty and comfort, or challenging discomfort? (You see what I did there…..)


Triadic/Tetradic “texture schemes” are more interesting than just opposites. The opposite of hard is not just soft, but also spiky.

Too much of the same texture can be overwhelming. In Transformers (2007) it was sometimes tough to tell who was an Autobot and who was a Decepticon, when the two were battling. There was a lack of contrast in the bodies, and limited color palette.


The properties of Line include thickness, degree of straightness or curve, and length. Line defines shape, but so does contrast; for example where two colors come together there is the suggestion of Line. However consider that a line may have blurry edges.

Shape and Space

Shapes may be geometric or organic, vary in size or complexity.


Mid-century Modern and Danish style of furniture employs a nice tension in the contrast between the simple shapes of the furniture and the space below and around the pieces. For example the height from the floor is an important part of the sense of airiness and definition.

Intentional Design Process – using contrast

Contrast makes things interesting.

  • Define your message – the reader/viewers takeaway – what you want them to think, see, believe or do?
  • How can contrast convey this message?

Writing with Contrast

Contrast is the foundation of much great literature. The contrast between good and evil is the most basic plotline. People say that irony is the foundation of Jane Austen’s work, but the irony is impossible without the contrasts inherent that idea.

Incongruity is the contrast between the expectation and the result. It works especially well in comedy. For example when the reaction does not match the trigger – that’s comedy. (“Nobody’s perfect.”) Interesting characters contain incongruities or apparent inconsistencies. A flawed hero is far more interesting. People sometimes behave inconsistently too. There can be a contrast between their desires or hopes and their ability to realize their potential.

Mismatches between sequential images, or between the image and the soundtrack, foreshadow events, or strengthen the message. The ominous music always cues our concern when the scene is children playing on the beach. Jolly music playing from the radio strengthens the horror of a catastrophe; lyrical music emphasizes the evil of cruelty. One famous example: Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971) – Stanley Kubrick

Contrasts invite value judgments – that one product is better for your needs, more suitable than another. For this reason, be cautious when considering Contrast to do with real people. Especially your kids.


Elements of Design – Line

This blog aspires to help people rediscover and reconnect with their own creativity, as well as to express their renewed creativity. This week’s theme is part of that second goal.

This is the first Creativity Blast theme based on the Elements of Design. To share some of what I’ve learned about design over the years, I plan on discussing each Element in different weekly themes, although not necessarily consecutive weeks. Later I’ll move on to the Principles of Design, which are how the Elements are applied to create intentional results.

The Elements of Design – the building blocks of intentional creation – are:

Volume or Size
Color or Hue
Tone or Value

There is no particular order of importance to the Elements of Design list. They are all present in visual design work, and all have commensurate equivalents in other areas of design such as writing and music. The Elements interact to define or change the values of the others; an obvious example Shape may be defined by Line, or Line may be implied by the meeting of two or more colors. Sometimes the Elements seem naturally to pair together such as Line and Direction, Shape and Size – but the truth is that they all interact.

This week I want to think about Line, and how to use this element in exercises to inspire creativity.

Since sketching and drawing begin with Line, one could consider it as the foundation of most art and design practices. Children first offered crayons generally begin with a joyous exploration of their ability to make linear marks.

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Lines define shapes. Making lines includes a beginning and an end, even when you are drawing a circle or oval and the line returns to its own starting point. Engineering or architectural plans are lines.

Lines create texture or adjust tonal values, and indicate direction.

Lines supply an underlying structure. 3D computer animations start with a wire frame, that is remarkably similar to the early perspective exercises from the Renaissance. Geometry is a function of lines, meeting in mathematically predictable ways.

Lines can be used to join ideas or images, as well as to divide or segment. Lines are edges, borders, delineations – the very word. In topographic maps lines indicate terrain by showing elevations. The closer the contour lines, the steeper the hillside in that landscape. Bathymetric charts do something similar for ocean water.

Hand writing, from jotting down a note to the most beautiful calligraphy, is all about lines.  

Lines can be used to direct the eye, and impart emphasis – a big part of design. Examine the sets of movies, and notice the prevalence of Line as a visual motif. In “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) the yellow brick road is the most important Line. Cel animation, of course, is all about drawn lines, but if you get a chance to watch Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) notice the linear quality of the backgrounds, especially the trees and landscape. The movie “Wolf” (1994) contains subtle references to cages throughout the production design, much of it created by Line.

Jack Nicholson in

This still from “Wolf’ illustrates a great trick – notice the line of the branch bringing us straight to Jack’s eyes. That’s why they chose this frame!

In Doctor Who Series 5, the designers employ an eccentric line as the crack in Amy’s wall, that reappears in many locations as a crack in the fabric of time. The simple visual motif is a recognizable signpost for the viewer of the underlying through-line story.

Look for Line in art. Painters that emphasize Line include Kandinksy, Chagall, Klee and Mondrian. Look at Picasso’s “Guernica”. Much traditional art incorporates universal motifs created with line such as chevrons, waves, stripes, concentric circles and zig zags. These are apparent in the textiles, basketry and pottery of cultures as diverse as Native Americans, traditional Eastern Europe, and many parts of Africa.


Composition VIII (1923) ~ Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on Canvas

Consider embroidery, Line created with thread. Look at “The Bayeux Tapestry”. Consider knitting and crochet – a single line creating a myriad of shapes.

“Singin’ In The Rain” is a linear song to me. The main tune goes up and down in waves. So does “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.

Twinkle Sheet Music

Look at all those lines!

Once you start looking for Line, including the invisible line of underlying structure, you will not be able to stop noticing it.

Line as Metaphor

There are many phrases to do with Line with symbolic meanings. The ideas of “toe the line”, “lining up” something (like appointments) or “getting your ducks in a row” – all suggest the Line as a metaphor for clarity. “Underlining” can be literal, or metaphorical but in both cases means to create emphasis. The idea of “crossing the line”, doing something unacceptable also speaks to limits and edges.

People speak of their ancestors as being their line. “Down the line” means in the future. A product line is a collection of related items, often connected by a single aesthetic.


A linear plot is one that is straightforward, with a clear trajectory. The positive side of a linear plot is momentum and excitement. There are few twists or tricks, and subplots would serve the main story. Linear is the opposite of convoluted, but also the opposite of episodic, where the narrative jumps in series of seemingly disconnected episodes.

One tool I like to use in my writing is a time line – plotting out the events of my story (usually a screenplay) over time, including the backstory. If I get stuck, my favorite trick is to write the series of events diary-style by different characters. This also gives me the opportunity to define the character’s history, gives me a clue into their motivations, and helps me define their voice.

Finding Line, using Line

One of the most classic line drawing exercises is to draw something – an object, landscape, building or portrait – with a single line; that is never lifting you pencil or pen from the paper. Of course you can overlap and change direction as much as needed.

Another trick for drawing is to use a Durer Grid. Grids can be used to change the scale of a depiction, or in life drawing. See the Greenaway film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”(1982) for a Durer Grid in use, (and incidentally marvel at the triumph of gorgeous design over limited budget.)

Here are some more ideas for raising your awareness of Line:

  • Use road maps or topographic maps as your background for other art, drawing, collages, or scrapbooking.

Vintage Maps

Downloadable maps

  • Look for Line in nature – consider trees, wood grain and leaves, rock strata, flood plains, abalone, DNA, the circulatory system, marble. Notice similarities – leaf veins that look like river deltas, abalone that looks like a map.

  • Visit a maze – lines run amok!

  • Try Zentangles, doodling elevated to the sublime.

So there you have it – a brief introduction to Line.

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