What is light-dark contrast and how can it be used design scientific figures and infographics?

3 minutes

Designing figures and infographics to convey the results of your research or to inform and influence your audience is a task that requires a significant amount of time and skill. Especially when addressing an audience that isn’t involved in your subject, investing in elaborate design is crucial to effectively reach your audience.

In this article, you will learn about one of the most important methods of visual design: using light-dark contrast to create clear and striking figures and infographics.

The basics

Colour shades and tints

Colours come in different tints and shades. A colour shade is mixed with black, and a colour tint is mixed with white. The more black a colour contains, the darker it appears, while the more white a colour contains, the lighter it appears.

Color palette: Vibrant hues of red, blue, green, yellow, and violet arranged in a gradient from white to black.

Light-dark contrast

Light-dark contrast is the variation in lightness or darkness between different colours. The higher the light-dark contrast between two colours, the easier it is to distinguish them. On the other side, the lower the light-dark contrast, the harder it becomes to tell the colours apart, as they blend together more smoothly.

How to use light-dark contrast to make your design more clear

When designing figures and infographics, clarity of information comes first. Why? Because, a lack of clarity impedes access to your information. The information or data you want to convey the heart of your figure or graphic – hence, use light-dark contrast very consciously to achieve clarity. Here are the two main approaches.

Make your information legible

Low contrast makes it hard to access visual information for vision impaired persons, but also when

  • the lighting is insufficient or two strong (e.g. strong beamer light);
  • there is a lot of distraction, such as noise, motion, and people wanting to talk to you;
  • you need to do several things at once;
  • you are stressed or tired.

Therefore, to improve legibility, a high light-dark contrast is one of the most effective visual design methods.

The headline, the most important text of your figure or poster, should be clearly legible.

Informationen that is there to provide context or fulfils only formal requirements, such as credits and references, can step back, by making it less visible.

Highlight what is important

The more information a figure contains, the longer it takes for your audience to navigate through and process it. You can enhance the pace, prevent misunderstandings, and sustain your audience’s attention by giving them a guiding hand. Do this by showing them what is essential – by highlighting the main focus using light-dark contrast.

Color palette: Vibrant hues of red, blue, green, yellow, and violet arranged in a gradient from white to black.

When you take one step back and observe the example above, you can notice that the color palette appears slightly three-dimensional. The colours in their purest form – not mixed with black or white – stand out the most.

You can use this aspect to prioritise your visual information. Employ pure colours for the most crucial information, such as the central focus, to make it stand out. Use darker or lighter colour shades or tints for the less important information, like details providing necessary context, allowing them to step back.

Elements that are “fading away” due to low contrast with the background appear less important. Conversely, elements with high contrast stand out and appear more important. The “less crucial” elements are still significant enough to be shown, as they provide context (Figure: Pamela Ornelas).

By Shau Chung Shin

I am a designer, businesswoman and founder of HAHAHA Global and Gesund in MeinerStadt. I develop solutions and products that encourage an open and positive approach to taboos. In doing so, I contribute to a healthier and more peaceful world.

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