CalArts: Funds. of Graphic Design-W3: 3.4 Negative/Positive, Figure/Ground

In this video, we’re gonna take a quick look at what happens when we take our shapes and we put them into an environment.
The shapes then have a relationship with that environment.

And we call this a figure ground relationship. 
And what this really means is an object and background relationship.

So if we look here we can see three familiar shapes of the square, triangle and circle.

And the figure here are the shapes themselves, the square, the triangle and the circle
And the ground, the background, is a white field.

Let’s see what happens if we invert that relationship. 
And we make the figures be white and the ground be black.

You can see that it has a very different feeling. 
Because we’re looking at this on a computer screen and white light is shining through the screen. 
Suddenly these shapes on the black background, 
they seem much more vibrant and bright, and optically even perhaps seem a little larger.

These relationships start to become even more interesting as they get to be more complex.

If we add some other black shapes here on top of the white shapes,.

What they appear to be now are holes in the other shapes.

And sometimes these are gonna push to the foreground
and sometimes they’re gonna recede [To move back; to retreat; to withdraw.] to the background.

In this case, the black shapes generally feel as if they are still the background.
They’re holes that have been cut out of the other shapes.

But what starts to happen is that that figure-ground relationship has become a little bit more complicated, 
an idea of depth is introduced.

And instead of the character, the object, standing flatly against a background,
suddenly there is a little bit more push and pull and we are uncertain which of these objects is closest to us and which is furthest away?

And we can make the issue more complicated by using scale.

Objects that are larger are generally closer to us in our field of vision, and objects that are further away are generally smaller.

So even though these elements might be flat, because they graphic forms they all have the same qualities. 
We’re actually starting to look at them and think about perspective.

We look at the large circle, we perceive the large circle as being closer to us, whereas the smaller circle we perceive it as being farther away.

But we don’t actually know that. All of these objects could just be different in scale and all sitting on the same plane.

So what I’m doing here, as the designer, 
is creating the illusion of depth through the use of “figure-ground relationships” and through “scale”.

How the viewer perceives depth in this simple figure-ground relationship can also be affected by some other elements.

Here we can see our three simple objects of square, triangle and circle, 
but with different tonal values, 
which means that they have a different amount of contrast to the background, 
the black square having the most contrast.

And because of that, it appears to be the closest to us.

Whereas, the other elements seem to be receding into the background because they’re closer to that background tonally.

And one of the reasons that the viewer perceives this kind of depth, these foreground-background relationships is really because of how we see.

In the real world, things that are up closer to us tend to be sharper, cleaner, with more denser colors.

Where things that are further away, they tend to be slightly lighter and fuzzier.

And if we were to arrange these elements so that they were overlapping, then we’d get an even greater idea of depth.

So the ability to create depth, to create some kind of push and pull between the figure and the ground, this really relies a lot on tonality. It relies a lot on contrast.

So depending what the background is, 
and depending what color the object is
or what tone the object is,

that can really have a lot of effect, on the amount of contrast, on the amount of depth that we perceive as viewer.

So if we look at these examples on screen here,

we can see that with the white background,
clearly, the black solid shape has the most contrast and stands out the most.

Whereas, as soon as we move to the black background,
obviously then, the white shape has the most contrast and stands out the most.

What’s interesting is to look at a 50%, a halfway tint of black as the background 
and to think about how that might benefit our reading of black and our reading of white as objects on that ground.

And again, because we’re looking at this on a computer screen, the white is going to come through shining a little bit more brighter and a little bit more powerful.

So this tends to have the most contrast, even though in terms of pure percentage value, the two are exactly the same distance from the background tone.

And it’s quite interesting to look at how those tonal figure-ground relationships interact with each other.

So if we, here, if we look at these four dots ranging from white to black with a 33 and a 66% tint in between.

If we look at what happens, particularly to the dark grey circle, when we change the background,

you can see that your perception of that grey circle is going to change.

Here it seems much lighter because it has less contrast,

and here it seems much darker because it has more contrast with the background.

Similarly, if we look at the same circles but then put them on a black background,

that dark grey circle is gonna appear to be darker against the white background with more contrast,

and lighter against the black background, with less contrast.

As we looked at previously, scale can affect our perception of depth in a figure-ground relationship, but so can tonality as well.

And here we can see what happens when we start to put the two of them together.

Now suddenly the darkest dot or circle really does appear to be receding, to be much closer to the black background than the large white dot, which really feels like it’s in the foreground.

If we then overlap those circles to further increase this idea of depth, we begin to start to really feel like there’s a three dimensional space in front of us.

And we’re really tricking ourselves here because deep down we know that this is just a flat graphic form. 
It’s really an illusion of depth that we’re creating.

And it’s interesting to see what happens when we do something as simple as switch the order of the tonality in these shapes.

So for instance, here it really feels like the white shape is coming out towards us.

Whereby switching them, it really feels like the white shape is in the distance, it’s our focal point.

It almost feels as if it’s a hole through the black plane that we’re looking at.

So it really positions the viewer in a totally different way. 
So just that simple shift can have a big difference in how we feel about the figure-ground relationship.

And if we then take that overlap and invert that, and deliberately kind of destroy the illusion of depth we’ve created, it suddenly becomes a much more confusing image.

We’re not quite sure what is coming towards us and what is receding and further away.

So you can see how these simple moves can be used to both kind of reinforce these dimensional figure-gram relationships, the push and pull of objects.

But they can also, if they go wrong, actually kind of confuse things, and really not help you in your design.

Here’s an optical illusion that illustrates how our eyes trick us when we’re trying to perceive tone.

We really do perceive it contextually, one thing against another.

If you look over at the letter A and then look over at the letter B, 
it appears that that gray strip is a different color. 
It appears to be darker over by letter A than it is over by letter B. 
But in fact, it’s exactly the same all the way through.