Figure Ground

by Jason Peist


Figure ground is a visual relationship between foreground and background. This is important to the perception of images, as the edges form the image that we see.


Three Distinct Types

  • Simple Figure Ground
  • Figure Ground Reversal
  • Figure Ground Ambiguity

Figure vs. Ground

Figure: The main focus of the composition (positive space)
Ground: The secondary portion of the composition (negative space

The principle of figure ground is one of the most basic laws of perception and one that is used extensively to help us design our photographs. In its basic sense, it refers to our ability to separate elements based upon contrast--that is, dark and light, black and white. In this discussion, we'll expand this definition from one of simple biological perception to one that includes abstract concepts such as subject/background and positive/negative space.

Figure Figure.jpg Ground.jpg Ground

Simple Figure GroundFigureGround2.jpg

A simple figure ground is the composition (or diagram) of what is perceived. A figure ground can be anything with a main focus, but a diagrammatic figure ground simplifies perception. In architecture, the site plan is often simplified to show the relationships otherwise not perceived, such as the building's mass in comparison to its surroundings.

Figure Ground Reversal

Star.jpgFigure ground reversal is the inversion of background and foreground. This is often used in logo designs and can often ground an image. In a simple figure ground the borders are perceived as limitless, whereas the figure ground reversal bounds the image.

Figure Ground Ambiguity


Figure ground ambiguity is the visual illusion with two alternate viewpoints. This is similar to figure ground reversal, but the alternate image creates a totally different perception. In this version of figure ground, a pair of objects share a similar edge. This illusion is created by the inversion of figure and ground. A well-renowned figure example is Rubin’s Vase, developed by psychologist Edgar Rubin. In this image the black positive space forms two faces that appear to be ready to kiss, and the inverse negative space forms a vase. Visually the concentration on either the white or the black makes the illusion alternate between the vase and the faces.

MC Escher's Sky and Water I, 1938

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:(2)

  • Contrast of color as in the images above
  • 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

In addition to interesting optical illusions, figure ground ambiguity can be used to emphasize the ground while the most obvious figure is made less prominent. An example might be sightseers against a landscape in a travel brochure.(2)

Care should be taken, though, to avoid images where the figure is camouflaged unless the intention is to require the viewer to search the image for the figure.(3)

External Links

Medium is the Message
MC Escher Speed Paint



(1) McGriff, Steven J. Perceptions: Figure/Ground, 2003:
(2) Fulks, Michael, "Gestalt: Figure/Ground", Apogee Photo Magazine:
(3) Skaalid, Bonnie, "Figure and Ground", Web Design for Instruction, 1999: