Don’t get us wrong, there’s certainly a time and place for flat design. But when you want your designs to have a more realistic, embodied feel, flat design...well, falls flat.
And this is where depth comes in.
Creating depth in graphic design makes viewers feel as if there’s an entire world on the screen or page; depth creates the sense that the design just keeps going, stretching into space—which not only feels more realistic, but also more visually interesting.
But what, exactly, is depth in design? Why is it so important? And how, exactly, do you create depth in graphic design?
Before we jump into how to create depth in graphic design (and why it’s important), let’s first cover what, exactly, depth in graphic design is.
Depth perception is defined as “the visual ability to perceive the world in three dimensions (3D) and the distance of an object.”
So, to sum it up, depth in graphic design is the ability to create that sense of dimension and distance within your designs.
The definition of depth in graphic design is pretty straightforward. But why is it so important?
Depth in graphic design makes your designs feel more alive. By using different design elements and techniques to create a sense of depth, your designs will feel more engaging, engrossing, and, for lack of a better world, real.
Again, there’s definitely times where flat design will look better, but if you want to create a design that feels like it’s in a world of its own, adding depth is a great option to consider.
You know what depth in graphic design is. You know why it’s important. Now, let’s get to the good stuff—how to create depth in your designs.
One easy way to create depth in graphic design? Using size and scale.
By experimenting with different sizes for each of your design elements—and how large or small each element is in comparison to others—you can create a sense of depth and space within your design.
Larger design elements seem closer, while smaller elements seem further away—which implies that there is a “closer” and “further” within your design.
Want to see how size and scale can add a sense of depth to your designs? Let’s take a look at this principle in action:
Why it works: There is a pretty wide variety of sizes in this illustration, from the large-sized beverage can, wine bottle, and volleyball, the medium-sized volleyball court and players, and the smaller mountains, sun, and clouds. This creates the illusion of depth; that the volleyball, beverage can, and wine bottle are within arm’s reach—while the volleyball court and players are off in the distance, playing against the horizon (which is, as horizons typically are, even further off in the distance).
Experimenting with the size of different elements can (and will!) add a sense of depth to your designs. Have fun with size and scale and add depth to your next design project with one of Canva’s templates, like the Music Poster or the Colorful Neon Illustrated Houses Block Party Poster.
One of the easiest ways to create depth in graphic designs? Overlapping objects.
Overlapping different elements and objects over each other gives your design a layered look—and when elements look layered, it creates a sense of depth.
Here’s an example of how overlapping objects can add depth to a design:
Why it works: The strategic overlapping of certain elements in this design creates multiple layers of depth.
First, there’s the ocean border. The border is used as an outline and layered on top of the beach scene, almost making it appear as though you’re looking through a window at the beach scene further in the distance.
Then, there are the overlapping waves, fish, and flowers within the border itself, which makes the border appear to have multiple layers as well. There’s also layering in the beach scene, with the clouds overlapping the sun and dolphins overlapping the ocean. Basically, there are elements overlapping within every part of this design—and the overall effect? All sorts of depth.
As mentioned, overlapping objects creates a layered effect that creates a sense of depth in designs. But taking that concept one step further? Layering transparent object.
Transparency is how “see-through” any element is within your design. And by overlapping elements of different transparency, each element interacts with the other in a new, interesting way (such as creating new colors)—and also adds a sense of depth.
Let’s take a look at exactly how layering transparent objects can add depth to your designs:
Why it works: This illustration may be simple, but its use of transparent layering is certainly effective. In addition to creating a new color shade where the rectangles overlap, layering these two, slightly transparent rectangles creates the illusion that one is being held in front of the other—which automatically creates a sense of depth within the design.
Layering transparent objects not only adds a sense of depth to your designs—but when you combine transparency with color? It can also add visual interest, thanks to the interesting ways the colors interact. Want to use transparency add depth and visual interest to your designs? Get the look with one of Canva’s templates, like the Orange Circle Film Night Poster or the Blue Autism Awareness Event Poster.
Perception can completely change the way a design looks and feels. And if you understand how to use that to your advantage, it can be a fantastic way to add depth to your designs.
Linear perspective is a technique that uses lines converging at one or more points to create a sense of depth. Linear perspective can use actual lines, or the lines can be implied and used to guide the placement of other design elements.
For example, let’s say you were designing a postcard of an open road. By having two lines (one for each side of the road) start wider at the bottom of the design and then narrow to a point of convergence at the top, it creates the experience of depth within the design, as if the road goes on for miles.
Let’s take a look at perspective in action (and, more specifically, how it can lend a sense of depth to a design):
Why it works: The lines on both the top (floor) and bottom (ceiling) of this design converge at a single point—which, in this illustration, is the corner of the wall. Adding other design elements along those lines (like the chair, crib, shelving, and window) reinforce the sense of depth, making it look as though we’re actually peering into a three-dimensional nursery.
Strategically placed lines can be all it takes to shift your viewer’s perspective—and add a sense of depth to your designs. Embrace linear perspective (and add depth to your design in the process) with one of Canva’s templates, like the White Striped Vintage Car Driving Instagram Post or the Streetwear Online Retail Instagram Post.
In the 3D world, every object has a shadow—so if you want to create a sense of depth in a 2D design, adding shadows is a great way to do it.
By adding shadows to elements within your design, you’re automatically creating a sense of depth; there is the object, the shadow, and the area that the shadow is being projected on. This creates a 3D effect that adds depth to your designs.
Let’s take a look at how playing with shadows can add a sense of depth to any design (which, in the case of this example, happens to be a typographic design):
Why it works: This shadow effect behind the “HI” in this poster design makes it seem as though the letters are moving towards the viewer. That sense of movement, from further to closer, implies a sense of depth—including in this otherwise simple design.
Texture is another great way to add depth to any graphic design project. When something has an uneven or varied texture—like a brick wall or a swatch of velvet—it automatically implies depth. By incorporating different textures into your composition, you can imply that same sense of depth in your designs.
Here’s a great example of how a little texture can go a long way in adding depth to your designs:
Why it works: The texture on the mountainside of this illustration makes it appear as though it’s actually made of rock, especially when compared to the smoother, white snowcaps. The texture in the background also adds an element of depth to the sky—making for a retro-inspired mountain illustration that has a real sense of depth (without sacrificing its more artistic, abstract feel).
Clearly, there are plenty of ways to add depth to your designs. But one element can be tricky—and that’s background color.
If your design has a color background, using a single shade can feel flat. Gradients, which transition between one or more colors, creates more depth within the shade.
Curious to see how gradients can make a design appear to have more depth? Let’s take a look at an example:
Why it works: When paired with the photograph and subtle shadows, the duotone gradient in Spotify’s background—which uses bold shades of blue, purple, and pink—creates an almost holographic effect that adds a serious sense of depth to this website design.
Love the gradient look? Add depth to your designs (and look cool in the process) with one of Canva’s templates, like the Purple Hot Neons Gradients Marketing Presentation or the Pink Dots Hot Neons Gradients Cool Presentation.