How to use transparency in graphic design

There are a number of principles that make up the building blocks of great design. Some of them, like balance or alignment, are fairly basic—and well-known to anyone who’s even tangentially familiar with the design world. But other principles can be a bit more of a question mark for people who don’t consider themselves to be design experts—and one of those principles? Transparency.

Transparency might not be as widely known as some of the more basic design principles—but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important!

Let’s take a deep dive into transparency—what it is, why it’s important, and how to use transparency in graphic design:

What is transparency?

transparency in graphic design

Graphic created in Canva.

Before we jump into how to use transparency in graphic design, let’s quickly cover what, exactly, transparency in graphic design is.

Transparency is also sometimes referred to as opacity. Opacity has to do with how much light passes through an object. The lower the opacity—or the more light that can pass through an object—the lighter and more see-through it is. The higher the opacity—or the less light that can pass through said object—the more solid it is.

So, in other words, the lower the opacity, the more transparent an object.

Sound confusing? Here’s a simpler way to think about it: transparency is just a measure of how “see-through” an object is. The more see-through the object, the higher the transparency.

Why is transparency so important in graphic design?

transparency in graphic design

Transparent films, like this one for sale at Amazon, works as color filters for various uses. Image via Amazon.

So transparency is about how “see-through” any particular element is in your design. But why, exactly, is that so important?

Transparency creates a sense of depth in design. Instead of keeping design elements (like typography, photos, and shapes) separate, you can layer them. This adds depth and makes for a more visually interesting design.

For example, let’s say you were designing an event poster. You could create depth by using a more transparent photo as the background for your poster. Then, you can layer different design elements with different levels of transparency on top of that photo to create a sense of depth and visual interest.

Transparency can also allow your design elements to interact in new and interesting ways. For example, let’s say you layered a number of transparent circles on top of each other, like a Venn diagram. The area where they intersect would create a completely different, more opaque shade—which, again, makes for a visually interesting design.

Principles of transparency in graphic design

Now that you know what transparency is, and why it’s important, let’s cover the basic principles of how to use transparency in graphic design.

Use varying levels of transparency in your designs

When it comes to transparency, if you want to add the most visual interest, you should plan to incorporate elements of varying levels of transparency.

For example, if you’re rating a design element’s transparency on a level between 1 and 10, you don’t want every element in your design to be a transparency level 6 or a transparency level 2. Instead, you want a mix of transparency levels.

That variety in transparency is what lends a sense of depth to design—and will make all of your designs feel more visually interesting.

Mix transparent and opaque elements

Contrast is another basic principle of design. It applies to color—but it also applies to transparency. For transparent elements to have the most impact, they need opaque elements to provide a sense of contrast.

For example, if you add a transparent box of color to your design, layer solid text on top. Or if you have a solid box of color, try a transparent font. The point is, the contrast between solid and see-through adds visual interest—and will maximize the impact of using transparency in your designs.

Transparency design examples (and why they work)

You know what transparency is. You know why it’s important. You know the principles behind it and how to use it in your designs. Now, let’s take a look at transparency in action:

Transparency font examples

Fierce font

transparency in graphic design

This brush script by Simon Stratford is applied over an image and its transparency lowered. Image via Creative Market.

Why it works: As mentioned earlier, one of the core principles of transparency is contrast. This handwriting-inspired font uses varying levels of transparency within each letter; some parts of the letter are almost completely opaque while others are almost completely transparent. This emulates the look and feel of a paintbrush on a canvas—and when combined with the block letter style, creates an urban look that lends an edgy feel to the cityscape photo behind it.

Want to lend a brushstroke-inspired feel to your designs—and the edginess that goes along with it? Capture the look with one of Canva’s templates, like the Pink and Black Grunge Creative Wattpad Book Cover or the Yellow Cupcake Cutouts Cookbook Book Cover.

 

Posters for the Au Théatre D'Auxerre

transparency in graphic design

Posters for the Au Théatre D'Auxerre.

Why it works: One of the reasons transparency creates so much visual interest in design is that it allows different design elements to interact in new and unexpected ways. In this design, the combination of transparent font, opaque font, bold colors, and photographic elements come together to create a visually impactful range of posters that are sure to grab your attention.

Like the bold, colorful style of these posters? Embrace that sense of boldness and create a colorful design of your own with one of Canva’s templates, like the Colorful Bold Modern Cheerleading Poster or the Teal Orange Abstract Brush Strokes Garage Sale Poster.

 

Transparency tutorial on YouTube

transparency in graphic design

This image is from a YouTube tutorial by King Tuts Pro talking about text transparency.

Why it works: Between the fully transparent font and the slightly transparent box that surrounds the text, this design packs a one-two transparency punch, with each transparent element creating more visual interest—and more contrast against the industrial-inspired background photo.

A transparent box can make text pop in your designs. Get the look—and make your typography jump off the screen—with one of Canva’s templates, like the Black Girls Hiking Weekend Ideas Photo Facebook Post or the Tea Party Announcement Facebook Post.

 

Brushtroke font

transparency in graphic design

The text in this design mimics a dry pen. Image from Wanitamalas.

Why it works: As mentioned, the contrast between opaqueness and transparency makes brushstroke fonts extremely effective. In this example, the black brushstroke font is layered over a plain white background—creating a further sense of contrast that helps the font pop.

The contrast between black and white in designs can be extremely impactful. Get the look with one of Canva’s templates, like the Black and White Triangle Sky Poster or the White Grunge With Floral Music Festival Poster.

 

Transparency image examples

Prints by Sarah Champion

transparency in graphic design

Prints by Sarah Champion. Image via artist's website.

Why it works: The brightly hued red, pink, teal, and lime green circles on these postcard designs really pop against the black and white background. But because each circle is slightly transparent, you can still see the photographic background—so the impact of the photo (which strengthens the adventure-inspired messaging within the circle) isn’t lost.

Using a pop of color against a black and white background is a great way to grab people’s attention in your designs. Get the look with one of Canva’s templates, like the Desaturated Collage Poster or the Blue and White Trees Inspirational Winter Quote Facebook Post.

Made in Japan

transparency in graphic design

This Japanese inspired poster by Quintal Éditions is part of a series presented in an exhibit during the graphic design month of Échirolles 2016. Image via Behance.

Why it works: Not only do the red, white, and blue hues used in this Japanese poster create an interesting color palette, but when the transparent red font overlays over the blue graphic, it creates a sense of depth and shadow that amps up the visual impact of the overall design.

Seeker's Base

transparency in graphic design

This logo makes use of varying shades of yellow in different levels of transparency.

Why it works: One of the most interesting ways to use transparency is to layer varying shades of the same color, which creates even more shades—as the designer did with shades of yellow in this logo design.

If you like the look and feel transparency lends to designs, why not make it the focal point of your branding—and incorporate it directly into your logo? Design your own transparent logo with one of Canva’s templates, like the Purple and Yellow Daycare Logo or the Blue and Yellow Dynamic Logo.

 

Shapes of London

transparency in graphic design

Shapes of London. Artprint by Yoni Alter, image via Etsy.

Why it works: From the bold color palette to the transparent London landmarks to the layering (which creates a sense of depth and shadow), this abstract design of the London skyline packs a visual punch.

Trainxtra logo

transparency in graphic design

TrainXtra logo by Russell Graphic Design. Image via 99designs.

Why it works: In many designs, using transparency in different ways can actually increase the visual impact of each element. The layered transparent circles (which, in varying shades of green, act as an abstract focal point for this logo design) are echoed the transparent “I’s” within the logo’s typography.

Layering transparent circles over each other not only adds visual interest but can add new and interesting colors to your logo design. Get the look with one of Canva’s templates, like the Wedding Photo & Video Coverage Logo or the Peach Colorful Icon Abstract Logo.

Get out there and get transparent with your designs

Now that you know how to use transparency in graphic design (and what the effective use of transparency looks like in action), all that’s left to do? Get out there and get designing!

Your secret weapon for stunning design