The ability to create and evaluate effective figure ground tension is an essential skill for graphic designers. Also known as positive and negative space is at work in all facets of graphic design.

First we have to understand how we perceive the form. Three-dimensional or two-dimensional objects posses a shape we perceive. The perception of form is the result of differences in the visual field. If the observed object does not have any difference what we see is a fog, nothing definite, a field of continuous light or shadow.

How do we perceive the form of an object? because of the contrast.

When we see a shape means that differences must exist in the field of light, when there are differences there is contrast. Suppose we take a white ball and put it against a white background. If we illuminate in a way that there are no shadows, contrasts will be so weak that we will not perceive the shape. If we move a little the light, shadows will be generated and this will increase the contrast resulting in the perception of the object shape.

figure form
figure form

Translating this to paper or computer if we want to draw a shape we have to make it different from the background.

Without contrast there is no shape.

Shape and Background relationship (figure/ground tension)

Consider this page. All blanks have the same tonal quality (white) therefore perceive as the background. This background has size and shape because of the contrast with the outer edges.

The text provides a strong tonal contrast against the background and then becomes figure and center of attention. Each letter in each word has shape because of its relationship with the background.

1. The background is bigger than the figure and usually simpler
2. The figure usually is perceived in front of the background.
3. The background may be perceived as a surface or a space
4. The background areas also have a shape.

The figure/ground contrast is necessary for us to see the shapes.

The body becomes a figure

If we draw a circle on a white background something curious happens. The area inside the circle is identical to the external (white) but from the psychological point of view we see the circular line as the edge of a surface, the enclosed area then becomes figure.


There is another important fact of how the background becomes figure; it is not necessary to fully close an area to transform it into shape. If for example we draw only two sides of a square is beginning to define an area, but if we add an accent in the opposite angle immediately we mentally complete the square.


The same effect can be accomplished if the edges of the tonal areas to define the form and substance.

form and substance

Recognizing the potency of the ground, designers strive to reveal its constructive necessity. Working with figure/ground relationships gives designers the power to create–and destroy–form.




Batman penguin
Batman penguin by Simon C page

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Javier Cantero

Javier Cantero