eSites Network Website Design


Contrast and Meaning

If you’re a designer, you work to communicate and convey meaning. So it’s important that you understand the mechanisms by which things and ideas acquire meaning; more than any other factor, your grasp of these fundamentals determines your ability to communicate effectively. Without fundamentals, you will flounder when faced with complex design challenges or constraints. Today, as always, issues of style and popular convention occupy the attention of many, and may distract us from the essentials of our craft.


Design is largely an exercise in creating or suggesting contrasts, which are used to define hierarchy, manipulate certain widely understood relationships, and exploit context to enhance or redefine those relationships…all in an effort to convey meaning. Contrast is important because the meaningful essence of any thing is defined by its value, properties, or quality relative to something else. That’s right: nothing has much meaning by itself, which is one reason why design is important.

The function of contrast in defining meaning can be explained by comparing fundamental opposites: dark/light, soft/hard, fast/slow. Examples like these are useful because everyone understands the extremes they imply, but while there are extremes, there are no absolutes. The values are merely relative.

For instance, a cheetah is generally considered to be fast. But a cheetah is quite slow compared to a jet airplane. So saying “a cheetah is fast” is only meaningful when some relevant context is also communicated or assumed. Likewise, stating that “element X in the page layout is important” is only meaningful when the relative importance of that and all other elements has been established. In other words, every element on the page you’re designing has to be positioned, styled, sized, or otherwise distinguished in accordance with its specific importance and place in the overall communicative objective. If you neglect even one component, it may work to subvert your entire effort.

In addition to defining meaning and relationships, contrast is closely tied to human perception and survival instincts, as we’ll examine later, and this makes contrast a powerful and essential tool for designers. Simply put, contrast is at the root of almost everything you’ll accomplish with design.

There are several primary forms of contrast that designers typically use, including the following:

The primary forms of contrast include size, position, color, texture, shape, and orientation.

In a layout, contrast helps lead the reader’s eye into and through your layout. Each component of the page—graphic, textual, or interactive—has a job to do, and each of those jobs falls within a hierarchy that’s specific to the project at hand. Furthermore, each component is but a piece of the overall project message and objective. With creative uses of contrast, you can influence user choices and compel specific actions.

Page elements must not, of course, be designed or organized haphazardly. Content must be intelligently composed, and composition is defined by the information hierarchy—which is defined with, you guessed it: contrast.

For instance, let’s say that you’re designing a simple web page for which the main purposes are to 1) briefly describe what the company/service does, and 2) ask visitors to create an account and start using the service. Setting visual concerns aside, let’s look at the initial copy we’re presented with for each of these information components.


Optimizr analyzes your web page or entire website and then transforms convoluted table structures and tagless content into lightweight, CSS positioned div layouts and semantic markup. The process is automatic and requires no knowledge of html or css. It’s 2.0-licious!


Optimizr accounts include Individual Level, Pro Level, and Enterprise Level. You can create an account now by clicking here. Or you can follow these links to learn more about the different account types.
It’s immediately apparent that there’s virtually no stylistic contrast between these two sections of copy. But in order for this page to work, there must be a great deal of difference between them! One is information copy and the other is supposed to be action copy. Let’s try and inspire some action by making the action section’s communication style contrast with that of the information copy.


Optimizr analyzes your web page or entire website and then transforms convoluted table structures and tagless content into lightweight, CSS positioned div layouts and semantic markup. It’s 2.0-licious!
One-click Optimizing! Optimizr’s functions are automatic and require no knowledge of html or css.


Create an account >>
Individual Level
For individual users with one static website.
Learn more>>
Pro Level
For individual users with multiple static websites.
Learn more >>
Enterprise Level
For users with CMS-driven websites.
Learn more >>
Now, let’s use some graphic contrast to further define the hierarchy of information and elements on the page.

Now, informational content and actionable content have been more appropriately defined and contrasted.

Now there is a clear hierarchy of importance among the page elements and a more compelling call-to-action area. Important information is contrasted by size, color, or decoration and actionable elements have a common color to communicate that they’re related in some way or have a common purpose. Now that we’ve increased the contrast between elements, page visitors don’t have to read everything to know what’s most important. With a quick scan, they can grasp which information is vital and how to “get started” once they’re convinced that they need this service.

Of course, this sort of contrast can only define the likely order of what readers will “see.” Getting them to actually read the content depends on other factors, such as how compelling the headline is and how engaging and interesting the story is—and in this realm, too, there is ample room for intelligent contrast.

In closing

The information and examples presented here barely scratch the surface of this subject. Contrast is everywhere and a part of everything we see, do, experience, and understand. Look for it in your own work and beyond. Get into the habit of finding contrast in everything you see, and of calculating the information hierarchy of things in your daily experience. In other words, look deeply. This sort of habit can pay healthy dividends in your design work.

Contrast is just one component of design fundamentals. Get cozy with all of them and apply them to your work first before you move on to the non-fundamentals. Your work will be better for it.


Post a Comment