Figure / ground relationship in simple terms is the relationship between the main subject of a visual composition and the area that surrounds it. Personally, I think this is one of the most important things about visual language. It’s the idea that the spaces between the forms are as important as the forms themselves. The empty space—or white space, as it’s properly called—isn’t really empty at all but as filled with tension, potential and excitement.
From the required reading, Ellen Lupton describes how you can improve your ability to create and evaluate effective figure ground:
The ability to create and evaluate effective figure/ground tension is an essential skill for graphic designers.Train your eye to carve out white space as you compose with forms. Learn to massage the positive and negative areas as you adjust the scale of images and typography. Look at the shapes each element makes and see if the edges frame a void that is equally appealing.
Study, for example, the classic Gestalt perceptual picture below. Two persons can be perceived, an old woman and a young woman. When the old woman is figural all the rest of the picture is ground; when the young woman is figural the old woman disappears into the ground. As you study the picture you may be able to change your perceptions from one figure to the other in order to appreciate the process of emerging figures and receding grounds as it occurs in your everyday life.
Alternative illustrations of figure/ground relationships may be seen in the classic Gestalt “Vase/Faces” picture. Although the white margins are blank spaces they do not have blank functions—they are integral to the perceptions of the faces.
Finally, consider the figure/ground relationship in these graphic design pieces.
How would you evaluate the figure/ground relationship in these examples? What makes it successful or unsuccessful? Where is the tension in the negative and positive space?