PERCEPTION of CONTRAST -Issues for design -18

Post 659 -by Gautam Shah


Contrast is a deviation from the expected. It is the realization of a thing against, the obvious, existing, notional or ideological percept. Contrast is seen between nominal or obvious things, versus abnormal or non-perceived conditions. Like a full vs empty streets, clear vs fuzzy, pleasant smell vs unpalatable taste, dark-hot vs bright-cool, vibrating but noiseless; These are some such expectations vs perceptions.


Contrast is a comparison and occurs in some reference. The reference forming nexus is proffered in real or a hyper realm. But the ‘thing’ and its context are not always in the same space or time setting. Contrast makes a ‘thing’ stronger by juxtaposition of some weaker, duller or different elements.


Contrast is detected by two distinctive processes. The perception, is a combined experience of different sensorial faculties. And it is also a process of cognition that defines the strongest experience forming the main object or foreground, and all other as the background. The backgrounds offer the context.


Sensorial faculties have their own scale of strength, and some have bipolarity. Typically eyes and ears continuously back up the space-position details. Similarly nose and tastes buds in the mouth, are closely located, and so show time-simultaneity in definition of edible things. The space-time references are filled in by other senses. Multilateral nodes of touch support such a process.


The foreground-background divergence manifests in time-space reference. The juxtaposition, however, is not in the same space or time setting. The nexus could be in real or hyper a real realm. The hyper realm consists of experiences and resulting expectations. One has seen neither heaven nor hell, but both pose concurrently as extreme contrast. One of the two could be real and other through anecdotical knowledge. Here the contrasts are realized through recall. The contrast is relevant till foreground-background simultaneity remains within a fathomable range of perception. Architectural entities contrast in size, scale, style, placement, orientation, and environmental conditions, thematic content etc.

Chandigadh India


The contrast offers a scale. Objects forming the contrasting zones have shapes, extent, proportion, and indicate a direction. The depth is the obvious phenomenon of foreground-background differentiation. Other two dimensions of the scale are formed by the shape and its extent. The fourth dimension of reality occurs with vivid scenes. Here, if the background is dull or static, the foreground contrasts intensely. And, where the foreground is dull or rapidly varying, the particulars of things and happenings fail to register effectively. The perceiver becomes confused and disinterested, if ‘back and foreground’ elements fail to present relationships in terms of now-then, here-there, far-near etc. In Design, there is always a conflict between context and contrast, requiring equilibrium.


Contrast makes things conspicuous to attract the senses. And the contrast to be obvious, occurs with some reference. The reference is formed by a ‘thing’ that is stronger by juxtaposition of some weaker, duller or different elements, by its power of persistence in reality, and as a recall. Often clues are included in the composition for the recall. The clues could be similarities, leftover trails of the past happenings or subtle insertions relevant only to the person experiencing it or in that time and space. Other design elements that offer contrast include presence of directions, sequences, repetitions, occlusion by frames, thematic continuities, sensorial consistencies, associated fables and explanations.


A design has internal and external context. Internal contrasts are part of the designed entity, so within the ambit of real experience. External contrasts occur through the embedded or implied metaphoric clues for connection.


Architecture occurs in the context of its terrain, environment and stake holders (humans and tasks) and incorporeal parameters like weather, culture, economics, social and politics. These are universal posers, some find them suffocating in creation of outstanding and long-lasting contrast. So contrast is realized by negation of the contextual elements. Architects resort to attitudes like deconstructivist, monumentalist, eccentricist etc. Architecture has been for a very long time and substantially static formation, but now for evocation of contrast, not only the form is made dynamic but the perceiver-users are made mobile and hyperactive. These experiences began in rapidly changing environmental conditions, unsettled positions of perceptions, gyrating conditions, gravity less conditions, videos and movies.


In art work like paintings aberrations of perception arise from how spaces are postulated by extent and depth, and time is suggested with metaphoric details. The way colours are seen or weights are felt is due to such contrasts. Our past experience and desires make us see or experience things before they happen at closer locations.


A silhouette is a very specific condition of contrast. Here the proportion of dark-light is of course important, but the edge conditions like shapes, arrangement, sizes etc. determine the effectiveness of contrast. Silhouette work in two ways: One due to the stark difference between the background and foreground, and Two due the lack of details in the foreground object. A glare is a form extreme contrast which fuzzes the foreground.

Vatican Silhouette

Camouflage is in a way opposite of contrast. It forms from the skillful exploitation of the contrast, though the resultant scenario is cacophonous. The noise occurs from anomalous conditions between the perception and its cognition. It is also the difference between real experience and the expectations. Camouflage morphs the foreground with background, alternatively the foreground turns fuzzy due to the reflections, multiple impressions, askew positioning, colour intonation, altered scaling etc.


Contrast occurs due to cascade of light, glare, echoes or reverberation, masking (of smell, taste), screening, covering, hiding reflections, and framing.


Cascading Light and camaflauge

Protective scaffolding over Taj Mahal AgraIndia 1943

Uniform colour

This is the 18 th article of 20 topics series on ISSUES for DESIGN