The objective of clean design—or any design for that matter—is to convey meaning. One of the most useful tools in a designer’s toolbox to help convey meaning is contrast. Contrasts define hierarchy, manipulate relationships, and exploit contexts—all to convey meaning.
Contrast is so important that the meaning of any specific thing is defined by its properties relative to something else. Consider these contrasts: dark/light, soft/hard, fast/slow. These are all contrasts, not absolute values; they are values relative to one another, and with those relatives values comes information.
Thus, to accurately convey meaning, every element on the page has to be contrasted with—positioned, styled, sized, or otherwise distinguished in accordance with its importance in the overall communicative objective—other elements on the page. Essentially, contrast is at the root of design.
There are several primary forms of contrast:
You can use each of these forms of contrast to help lead your user into and through your layout. Each component of your page—graphic, text, or interactive element—has a fucntion, and each of those functions falls within a hierarchy that must be specifically designed to meet the objectives of your project. Further, each individual component is only a piece of the overall project message and objective and must be designed in a way that is congruent with the whole.
Clean design uses contrast to influence user choices and compel specific actions. Since humans habitually scan our surroundings, your users may focus on one area of the page for a moment, but generall visually “consume” new inforamtion by performing a quick scan. When scanning, users look for elements of contrast—things that stand out.
By using contrast, you can affect the way your user will scan your page’s layout and decide how and where they will begin consuming the content. If you have used contrast to define a visual information hierarchy, you can compel viewers to look where you want them to. If you’ve done a really good job, with intelligent contrast, calls-to-action, etc., you can even compel them to follow a specific path through the layout.
Contrast is the foundation of clean design. Master it, and you will be well on your way to up-leveling all your creations.