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Avoid Wishy-Washy Design with Decisive Contrast

I used to love watching Sesame Street when I was younger. (True confession: I still like watching it if I’m sick in bed. It’s comfort television.)

Let’s Play a Game

Sesame Street had a few regular features that were great training for a graphic designer and small business marketer-to-be. My favorite was “One of These Things is Not Like the Other.”

In this feature, the screen was divided into four sections. In each section, an image would appear. All of the images would be part of a “group,” except one. Our job as viewers was to decide which image didn’t belong in the group. See if you can figure out this example:

brand strategy includes using decisive contrast between objects

Did you guess the onion? Yes? Splendid! Three images are fruits, and the fourth is a vegetable.

Now let’s try another:

brand strategy includes using decisive contrast in your images

How did you do? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the African Weaver Finch in the upper right corner is the only species not native to North America, so it’s the image that doesn’t belong.

What? You didn’t get that one?

What Were You Thinking?

Here’s what you might have been thinking when you looked at the four bird images.

“Well, they’re all birds, so there’s no difference there.”

“Wait! One of the images is in black and white! Maybe that’s the difference!”


“Three images are facing right, and one is facing left. Maybe that’s the difference!”


“Three of the birds have a dark beak, and one has a light beak. Maybe that’s the difference!”

That’s a lot of thinking, and in the end, you might not have arrived at the correct answer. The reason the first set of images was easy to figure out is that the images were consistent in every way. They are all silhouetted against a white background, and their relative size is the same.

The second set of images isn’t like that at all. Two are photos, one is a painting and one is an illustration. One is in black and white and the others are color. Three show the full bird, and one is cropped in on the bird’s head.

Too Much Information

All of those differences gave you too much extraneous information to process. You were so busy looking at the differences between the images, you couldn’t process what was pictured. (I know: even if you could have processed it, you may not have picked up on the difference unless you are a birder. I didn’t promise to make it easy!)

Be Direct and Decisive

When making design decisions for your small business marketing – whether it’s combining typefaces, or grouping images, or deciding how to crop and color photos – make your choices obvious. Don’t make things different arbitrarily: do it with a purpose in mind.

And if you’re going to make them different, make the difference really obvious. Otherwise, it looks like a mistake.

Intentionally Different

If you’re going to make something a different size, make it much bigger or much smaller. If you’re going to combine typefaces, make one thin and light, and the other dark and chunky. If you’re going to choose colors to combine, try pulling them from opposite sides of the color wheel.

These kinds of decisive design choices make your marketing information easier to process. It gives the viewer less to think about by making your intention obvious. Doing this allows them to focus on your content, rather than trying to interpret your presentation.

Try it! Don’t be afraid to be decisive and bold in your choices. It’s the fastest way to leave wishy-washy marketing behind.

African Weaver Bird by Mara 1 on Flickr

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is an online educator, author, keynote speaker, and the founder of BIG Brand System. Read reviews of the tools used to run this site and business.

Pamela Wilson

I want to help you take the next step. Pick your free workshop topic and let’s do this!

16 thoughts on “Avoid Wishy-Washy Design with Decisive Contrast”

  1. Great post! I guessed the owl was not like the others because it’s the only nocturnal bird in the group.

  2. That was hard, even for a birder. All but the Owl are passerines, while the Owl is not. That could have gone a lot of ways. I’m very impressed that you can identify an African Weaver Finch! I guess that’s what makes good design so hard, there are so many things to remember. I’m so glad I have you to teach me what works!

    • Actually, Carole, Mara 1 on Flickr is the person who gets the credit for identifying the African Weaver. I just take credit for knowing how to read! 😉

  3. This is good advice that I will be keeping in mind. Anything that makes the reader/viewer pause and think about something other than your message puts your message at risk.

    As a writer I know this about spelling and grammar. Some folks will say “it doesn’t matter if you understand what I mean.” It does matter though, if I stop to think about your words instead of your message.

    I like how you are helping me see how all this relates to design. If you are going to change things up, change it big so people are wondering if you just slipped. Kind of like the backwards R in the Toys R Us logo let a pre-IM generation know that they did it on purpose.


    • Exactly! Thanks for your comment, Tammi.

      The “make it obviously different or it looks like a mistake” lesson is (to me) one of the most important design lessons to master. Once I understood that, everything was easier.

  4. G’day Pamela,

    Just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy your posts. They contain lots of tips I didn’t know about. And they remind me of lots of things I didn’t realize I’d forgotten.



  5. AND that is exactly what I do when I am sitting here not being able to chose the next step and what to do. I call it “nothing floats to the top” so that I can chose it. LOL

  6. Good advice … but I hope the first example wasn’t what you meant, ’cause I got it wrong.

    You said, “All of the images would be part of a ‘group,’ except one. ” I picked the image that depicted seven objects, the berries, to be different from the images which depicted one object each.

    So it wasn’t obvious to me … but I’m an engineer … that might account for it.



  7. I have to admit I too was thinking the owl, it then became obvious what you were attempting to do….after you explained it that is 🙂

    I am very guilty of making things that are to busy and heavy. I had never really stopped to understand exactly what it was that was being done when a site or page is to busy. Thank you explaining it in a way that I will be able to retain.

    Hopefully my designs and layouts are improving.

  8. I thought the blackberries were different because they weren’t a single big round thing. 🙂 (laughing … now I’ve flunked Sesame Street. Oh dear.)

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