A Designer Looks at Gray Areas

Kodak Gray Scale

I admit to being in the minority as a designer and illustrator when I say that I think in terms of black or white and seldom in terms of gray. In other words, I’m of the persuasion that polarities exist and on the one hand there are right choices and on the other there are wrong choices. There are absolutes.

Many people argue for gray areas: concepts that are vague or complex and too difficult to deal with without some real effort. Tagging them as gray areas allows them to go unaddressed or put off until a later time.

Accepting the concept of gray areas means we don’t need to seek solid conclusions, and that good and bad or right and wrong may be blended together. Gray areas are vague and unsure. Nothing is clear, and it’s figuratively foggy. Nothing is absolute. Perceiving distinct outlines through fog is nearly impossible. In gray areas, everything is relative and unknowable, so we don’t have to make decisions.

The thing about gray, though, is that it’s a blend of black and white – which are visual polar opposites. Both black and white exist within in gray, and can be extrapolated and carefully considered, if we make the effort. The key is to make the effort. With anything that’s unclear, the answers are there but need to be discovered.

Gray areas are dangerous places. When it’s gray, vision is not clear. It’s difficult to see ahead, and often more difficult to see where we are at the moment. Obstacles are not apparent and will become stumbling blocks. What we see vaguely may be deceptive, looking like one thing when it’s really another.

The contrast of black and white provides clear choices. It’s either or, not both and. With black and white, contradictions are clearly visible and easily recognized. Against black, white is highly visible, and vice versa. There is no mistaking the one for the other; each will emerge from the other and separate distinctly.

As a designer, my work is better when it’s based on absolutes: those design principles and elements that form the basis and rationale of the visible result and the function of the work. I strive for excellence in concept and craft. Excellence requires the acknowledgement of absolutes: standards, proven process, gestalt and universal design principles.

There is good design and bad design, right solutions and wrong ones. Knowing the difference and recognizing it when it presents itself enables me to be honest and discerning about my own work.

What’s your take on gray areas?

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.