Innovative approaches to texture in graphic design

Graphic design is in a very flat phase right now—designed on and often for computer screens. Leading designers have adapted to this new condition by avoiding 3D illusions and instead focusing on striking shapes and outlines, rendered in bold, unmodulated color areas. Does this mean the end of texture in graphic design? Not at all.

On the contrary, texture has become arguably even more important as a foil for flat design, with each component amplifying the other’s qualities. And the old, trompe l’oeil approach to texture has not completely disappeared either. New tools have allowed illusionistic texture to become ever more sophisticated; its place in the design world is smaller now, but still important.

But what exactly is texture in graphic design? We are talking about a generally two-dimensional medium, after all. We can answer this question by exploring three types of texture that are trending today: actual texture, texture in photographs and simulated texture.

1. Actual texture

This category refers to graphic design products that are able to incorporate actual three-dimensional texture effects. It is typically limited to paper-based items like book covers, business cards and product labels.

Book covers

book cover texture
Clockwise from the left: Binding for The Scouring of the White Horse, 1859; single color letterpress cover for “Topophobia”; paperback embossing for “2666”

The word “texture” comes from the Latin textura, meaning “weaving.” The feel of fabric is central to the term’s significance. Thus, besides clothing and tapestries, perhaps no design product better exemplifies texture than books, the hard covers of which used to be made out of woven fabric, as you can see in the Victorian volume shown above left.

Today book cover designers continue to take advantage of the texture of fabric-based hard cover books (above, top right). With soft cover books, designers can introduce texture in the form of raised letters (above, bottom right).

Business cards

textured business cards
Clockwise from left: Textured business cards for Lift, Arūnas Kaltanas and Koodoz Design

As anyone who has seen “American Psycho” knows, it is not only the look but the feel of a business card that is important. Texture here can convey key information about the owner’s social status and taste (at least according to Patrick Bateman).

To achieve interesting texture in business cards, designers can employ special paper stock of different thickness and grain. They can also use techniques like embossing—molding or stamping a surface so certain elements are recessed or stand out in relief. Letterpress printing is a common way of of achieving such textured letter forms.

Labels

wine labels
Left to right: Embossed label for Vedernikov Winery; negative embossing for Sea Smoke; a label using flexible die

Beer and especially wine labels are also great candidates for a textured approach. When a customer goes to buy a bottle, he or she often picks it up by its body, where the label is. A label that is nicely textured will convey an elegance that visual design alone cannot.

Grainy paper stock and embossing work well here too. The labels shown above nicely demonstrate the effects of embossing in positive relief (left) and negative relief (center). Meanwhile, the label at right uses a technique that is unique to labels: it uses a ribbed adhesive that results in subtle ridges on the finished label, giving it a distinctive hand feel.

2. Texture in photographs

Now say you’re working in one of the many graphic design products that do not involve thick paper or fabric—web sites, posters, magazine layouts, and so on. In these cases it may not be possible to bring in actual texture, but it is always possible to evoke texture by letting photographs of particularly texture-heavy scenes do the work.

Web design

poco people website
Web design for Poco People

Website landing pages are a great place to showcase photography. Savvy designers like the folks at Poco People, a design firm, overlay flat graphics on top of a photograph that is particularly texture heavy. Natural scenes like this one are great: the craggy, snow covered terrain conveys tons of tactility.

Print design

Audubon Magazine's March-April 2016 issue
Audubon Magazine’s March-April 2016 issue (via Creative Pro)

On the printed page you are able to use photographs of very high resolution. The contrast of highly textured visual information and striking flat design forms, like typographic elements, is always a winning strategy. The example above is a slam dunk in this regard, using color contrasts as well as textural ones to great effect.

Faces

Face texture
Left to right: Poster for Jazzdor; Bruce Willis on Esquire; magazine cover for L’Obs

Besides landscapes, perhaps no photographic subject conveys more texture than the human face. Magazine designers are the master of this texture component, as you can see in the above cover of Esquire featuring a stubbly Bruce Willis.

Meanwhile, the posters above right and left are great examples of how to join a photograph of a human subject with flat design and typographic elements.

Typographic effects

Left to Right: The Sleek, World Gratitude Day by Khuong Pham and Call of the Bison by Keith Barney

These poster examples use photographs with natural textures—namely, foliage and a bison’s fur coat—to set off sleek typography and minimalist, geometric design elements.

3. Simulated texture

When designers use sophisticated tools, especially digital ones, to replicate the look and feel of real textures without basing them on a photograph, they are simulating texture. Simulated texture no longer holds the prominent position that it once did.

However, there are more types of simulation than you might expect, and even the more illusionistic variants will probably stick around to some extent, if only because they are such a fun way for designers to show off technical chops.

Overlays

overlay
Left to right: Typographic overlays for Guimarães JAZZ 2009 poster by Atelier Martino&Jaña; “Tropical” by Ricardo Garcia; magazine cover for OC Weekly

There are really two elements to texture: three dimensionality and “feel,” which refers to more fine grained characteristics of form. In the real world these can never be separated, but in design they can be. One way to convey three-dimensionality without necessarily dealing with “feel” is through overlay.

All of the above images give the impression of several successive layers receding back into space. This is one form of texture that designers don’t always think of as such.

Simulations

simulation
Faux textures from Jacopo Severitano, Greenblatt-Wexler and Pawel Nolbert.

Believe it or not, none of what you see above is based on a photograph. The patterned fabric behind the letter “A” above left was generated entirely by a designer using digital tools. The same goes for the fleshy form breaking through what looks like a sheet of paper, and for the “a” of brushed paint at left. All of these images are rich with texture, none of it with a direct connection to the real.

Textured type

type
Textured type via Creative Pro and Man Greig Farin

Conventional typography does not simulate anything. Letters are abstract symbols that denote particular linguistic content.

In recent years, especially with the advent of digital tools, typographers have been experimenting with more playful forms of type that carry texture information. The drippy, cheesy slab serif above left is a particularly extreme—but by no means uncommon—example. The typeface above right, called “Canyon,” by Man Farin, is a little more subtle. The letters incorporate information derived from landscapes.

Skeuomorphism

skeuo
Skeuomorphism via designmodo.com and designerdaily.com

Skeuomorphism refers to two-dimensional images that attempt to simulate three-dimensional objects through trompe l’oeil effects. Not so long ago, they were everywhere, forming the very backbone of Apple’s iOS operating system and its icons. Now it gets a bad rap as flat design has stolen the stage. But as the above examples make clear, skeuomorphism when done well was a marvelous sight—perhaps the apogee of texture in graphic design.

How do you use texture in graphic design? Share in the comments!

Featured image via Beach Fossils NYC

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