The relationship between figure and ground is one of the most important relationships in design. In simplest terms the figure is what you notice and the ground is everything else.

The design element of shape will also be discussed in this section.

The objectives of this lesson are to:

Understand the characteristics of the design element shape.

Learn the relationship between figure and ground.

Design an obvious figure/ground relationship using a letter of the alphabet.

Make an ambiguous figure/ground composition using the negative shapes from the letter project.



You will use shapes cut from colored paper for the next four projects.


Shape, like the other design elements, is one of the visual tools used by designers. You will investigate the design elements during the second half of the semester. For now a shape is an area that is separate from other areas and/or its background. The separation can be by a boundary line or a change in value/color, texture or any other difference that lets you see that the shape is different. The boundary can be an outline or a distinct edge like cut paper, a rough edge like torn paper or a soft edge like a smear of charcoal.

More about shape in Part V.





The part of a composition that we pay attention to is called figure. The figure is also called a positive shape. In a simple composition there may be only one figure. In a complex composition there will be several things to notice. As we look from one to another they each become figure in turn.

Recognizable objects (subject matter) are easy to see as figure. In compositions without recognizable subject matter what we see as figure will depend on the abstract relationship between the visual elements. The most interesting at any moment is the figure.

Everything that is not figure is ground. As attention shifts from figure to figure the ground also shifts so that an object can go from figure to ground and back.
Ground is sometimes thought of as background but this is not always true. In a flat composition there is nothing behind the figure (if there was there would be the illusion of depth). The shapes are side by side.

When the figure is surrounded by space in the composition the ground looks like a shape (the format) with a hole in it the shape of the figure (see example to the left). In this case the ground looks like a background for the figure and there is a shallow space developed. In this example the figure and ground are both visible even though the ground (red) is all that is shown.

If the figure contacts the edge of the format or other figure shapes the ground seems to surround the figure and a series of ground shapes are made. These are called negative shapes and no longer appear as a background. The space stays flat.


The designer is responsible for everything that takes place within the format.

The area that a composition takes place in is called the format. The format is defined by it's size and shape. The format's edges are generally indicated by a border or the edge of the background color. The default format is the size and shape of the page or canvas that the composition takes place on -- unless that space is reformatted with a new design area indicated.

Choosing an appropriate format means choosing a shape and size for the ground.




The figure always defines the ground and the ground defines the figure. They are inseparable -- you can not have one without the other. If you draw the figure in a composition, you are drawing the ground at the same time (see "S" in red ground above). The edges of one are the edges of the other.

The classic face/vase illusion forces the viewer to shift from one figure to the other but not to see both as figure at the same time. When you see the faces as figure, the vase is the ground. When you see the vase as figure, the faces are the ground.

The figure/ground relationship is so important that an artist must consider all of the composition when designing. It is a mistake to only plan the figure. The entire area of the format must be given careful consideration or the image will be only partially designed. This is one of the points about design that this chapter and the next attempt to make clear.

If the entire area of the format can be made interesting, all of the shapes, spaces and/or objects appear as figure and 100% of the format is working visually. If only the subject matter, or main abstract shapes are carefully designed to look interesting, the designer is giving away the rest of the format space to stay as ground. A composition that is all interesting has an advantage over one that is only partially interesting.


Student example #1

Student example #2

Student example #3



Design an alphabet letter that fits in a rectangular format so that it touches all four sides. The letter must be easily recognized and occupy 50% of the space in the format.

Only two colors may be used: one for the figure and one for the ground. Any style of upper or lower case letter may be used.

The negative shapes from this project will be the visual information you use for the next project. There must be at least five negative shapes.

This and the next project will be displayed as a set.


Try one of your initials and make a monogram for yourself (optional).

Here are some student examples:


Look through books or magazines for a style of letter that appeals to you. Adapt an existing letter style or make up your own.
The letter must be recognizable so that it will be an obvious example of figure. Remember you will use the negative shapes from this project next time so design the letter with the negative shapes in mind. In other words, design the entire format -- both figure and ground.

To look at examples of type more faces, called fonts, search the internet. Some suggestions: Adobe Type Library and The Font Pool.

There are many styles of type and more invented every day. Here are some concepts that are used in most letter designs:

Strokes: The marks that make up letters all have names but can be summarized as strokes. Some letters use only one width stroke (gothic letters) but most use strokes of different widths. The wider strokes are usually vertical with the horizontal strokes thinner. The wide strokes give the form stability and are critical in the recognition of the letter. Observe letters to see where the different stroke weights are placed.

On letters with curves, especially script letters, the transition in stroke width is smooth and gradual. The gracefulness of a letter is greatly influences by where and how this transition is accomplished.

Waist: The visual center of a letter is its waist. This is where the center of B, K and R, and the horizontal stroke of E and F are located. The waist is usually above the measured center giving the letter more weight on the bottom for stability. The lower areas are also usually wider than the tops for the same reason. Some letter styles violate this with very high (or rarer still, very low) waists-- but be cautious of this idea.

Consistency: Unity is the goal of all designers. The parts of the letter and especially the decorative strokes (serifs) should be the same or compatible in style.



It might be necessary to stretch your letter somewhere to make it touch the sides of the box it is in. The top part of an S, or B, for example, is usually smaller than the bottom part so it might need widening. Narrowing the lower part may also work. The letter should touch all four sides of the format box.

Exaggerating part of a letter or tilting it can also help make it fit better. Strike a balance between fitting and the aesthetics of the letter's shapes (both positive and negative).

Cropping (cutting off part of the letter) can work if you are careful where you do the cutting. Most parts of a letter are necessary but some edges can be supplied by the viewer's imagination.

Remember to design both the letter (figure) and the negative shapes (ground). Both must be interesting for the image to work well.




It is important for the next project that the negative shapes from this project use half of the format. Judging when your letter occupies 50% of the space is not easy. Look to see the same amount of each color (figure and ground). This is an aesthetic challenge since it will make the letter thicker than most type styles.

Thicken the main letter strokes while thumbnail sketching. Keep the letter readable and consistent in style. Pay particular attention to the width of every stroke in the letter. Make the curves smooth and changes in line weight gradual with the thick and thin areas in the appropriate places. Use a French curve if you have trouble drawing the curves freehand.

Adding to the decorative parts of the letter can fill space as long as the design is not compromised. Remember that the strokes that make up the letter should be the most visible.

Try changing the format shape to better fit the letter. Avoid an exaggerated (thin) rectangle since it will be more difficult to use on the next project.


The negative shapes
One of the points of this assignment is to point out that planning the ground shapes will help make the figure shapes more interesting. Remember that you are going to use only the negative shapes from this project in the next.

Strive to make all of the shapes in the design interesting. Variety is the spice of life -- make the shapes a little different in: shape, size , direction and/or proportion.

The more negative shapes, the better -- up to a point. Have the parts of the letter touch or overlap each other to make more shapes. Adding or exaggerating the serifs on the letter can be an effective way to do this.

Changing the proportion of an area so it touches the side of the box is another.
Avoid any large shapes, especially long ones, since they will be difficult to use in the next project.

Use thumbnail sketches to find a design idea. Start with the letter and draw the format shape around it. Thicken the strokes of the letter to make it occupy half of the format area.

A full size rough will be needed. Draw the rough in your sketch book and adjust the proportions and details until you are satisfied with the composition. Construction paper comes 9 inches by 12 inches so it makes sense to make the finished product that size or smaller. There is nothing magical or sacred about a 9 by 12 inch format. Do not compromise your design to make it conveniently fit a piece of paper.

It will take three pieces of paper to make these two projects. One for the figure and ground shapes and two the same color for backgrounds. Cut all of the papers to the same size -- the size of the format.

Trace, transfer or cut up your rough and use it as a template to put the letter design on the color paper that is to be the letter (figure). Keep any marks light and easy to erase. Cut out the letter being careful to cut exactly on the line and to save all of the negative shapes (to use in the next project).

Use two colors that will show well against each other. Color has the potential for psychological as well as visual impact. Choose colors that work well with the style of letter you designed. Both colors should show well against the white of the page or you will need a border. Avoid two colors that are the same value unless one is bright and the other dull.
A border is optional but necessary if either of the colors are too light to contrast with the white of the Design Books paper. Yellow is a color that nearly the same value as white. Choose a border color that contrasts equally with both letter and ground colors. Keep the border narrow so it does not compete with the image.



The project and the next will be displayed in the book on facing pages so that both are visible when the book is opened flat.

This project should come first so put it on the left page, or if a horizontal format is used for the letter, on the top page.

The project should be labeled FIGURE/GROUND and is worth 10 points.

The next section, ambiguous F/G, will tell more about how to control figure/ground relationships and how to make the next project.


© 2002 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.