The Principle of Figure-Ground


Figure-ground refers to the shapes, space or forms within a composition. In simplest terms the figure is what you notice and the ground is everything else.



The figure also known as the positive space, refers to the image(s) that are visually dominant on the ground.

The ground, sometimes referred to as the ‘negative’ space or the background, is the surrounding area that the figure is placed upon.

An image can be figure dominant or ground dominant.

Using Figure Ground in Design

The mind tends to seek distinctions between the figure (the subject of the design or image) and the ground (the background).

A designer typically wants the figure to demand attention; the ground should support the figure and not distract the viewer.

(1) A good design creates a balance in that the ground helps define the figure – whether through creating lines that define the shape of the figure, adding color that creates a mood, or establishing a reference point like place – but the figure is what the viewer notices and processes.

Distinctions between figure and ground can be accomplished in a number of ways:

  • Contrast of color
  • Blurred or out of focus background
  • Placement of the figure in the image
  •  Magnifying the figure so that the ground is virtually non-existent
  • Minimizing the figure so that the figure appears to be isolated or insignificant

Letterform Abstraction – Design Exercise 

1. Working within a 8-x-8-cm square, create compositions using a single leterform. Examine the forms and counterforms of the letter.

2. Isolate just enough of each letter to hint at its identity. Strike a balance between positive and negative space.

3. Create six or more compositions.


Figure-Ground Design Examples:

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One thought on “The Principle of Figure-Ground”

  1. Who do I ask for permission to use a figure/ground image to explain a technique I have to break the spell of a PTSD flashback? I’m a psychologist and work with a lot of 9/11 first responders.

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