Create an Illusion of Depth


Graphic designers use a flat surface, or a two-dimensional space – to convey their messages to others. This two-dimensional, or 2D, space is a flat plane that consists only of length and width. The only depth within a 2D plane is the illusion of depth created by the designer. This illusion, much like a magic trick, can only work through the successful use of monocular cues.

Monocular cues create the illusion of forms that advance or come forward from the picture plane. The reverse is true as well, where forms seem to recede from the picture plane. Monocular cues are depth cues that result from using only one eye (mono meaning “one”). Recently, scientists have confirmed that the illusion of depth is perceived – not so much by the eye as it is by the brain. Successful designers use this information to create depth cues. In turn, these cues create the illusion of a three-dimensional (3D) space from a 2Dformat. Some ways to achieve this illusion include:

  • Size: For example, large type in a heading appears closer than small type in body copy.
  • Size and Position: Two pencils are placed next to each other, and one is smaller. The smaller pencil will appear to be further away in distance. On the other hand, if both pencils are the same size and one is placed at the end of a hallway (one point perspective), the pencil placed at the end of the hallway will appear larger.
  • Position: An object placed at the bottom of a 2D picture plane will appear closer than the same sized object placed at the top of that same format.
  • Overlap: When one object is overlapped over an object of the same size, the object on top is perceived as being closer.
  • Values: Darker objects appear smaller than lighter objects; so lighter objects appear closer to the viewer on the picture plane than darker objects.

The clues listed above are just a few of the many tricks designers can use to add the illusion of depth to a flat picture plane. In many cases, a designer will use more than one clue to help the viewer understand the depth illusion. Study optical or visual illusions, because some of these optical tricks may help you bring your subject ‘closer’ to your viewer in more ways than one!

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