The Design School’s Ultimate Guide to Designing With Backgrounds [With Ready-to-Use Templates]

Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to accomplish a particular purpose. – Charles Eames

In order to arrange your design, you need a place to start. Backgrounds are the foundation of your graphics — it helps pave the path to forming a successful composition.

Textures and colors help create depth and contrast, allowing your graphics to stand out and get noticed. Well composed images can help create space for you to overlay text, while visually communicating your message at the same time.

Using a background can help give your designs more context and provide a visual element to help support your content.

Bonus: We’ve designed most of the images in this article as templates for you to personalize! To use them for your own stuff, just click them and they’ll be ready to edit in your Canva account (No Canva? It’s free!). 

The background you choose can change your design dramatically and make your graphics feel more complete.

Colors can be used as overlays to enhance brand awareness amongst your audience, while images don’t need to just sit alongside your graphic elements — they make for excellent backgrounds when placed correctly.

In this post we’ll show you how to form aesthetically pleasing backgrounds using various graphic techniques like textures, flat color, gradients, and image treatments.

Solid Color

Back to basics. Using a flat color background is an incredibly effective way to create simple designs. The most important element to remember when applying this technique is the mood you want to create.

A stronger tonal duo of a very light and a very dark color, or perhaps colors from opposite sides of the color wheel (known as an analogous combination) will create impact. While a lighter combination will exude a softer, more calming effect.

Using lighter shades for your background doesn’t mean you have to compromise the legibility of your type. Retain the wistful aesthetic of light color combinations by using soft pastel backgrounds with stronger tones like dark grey for your text to increase the contrast.

Added tip: Use two tones of the same color (here we have used two pink tones) to form a balanced background. This helps to separate content (wine names and where they are from) where necessary while maintaining visual harmony. 

Solid Color High Contrast

Using a tonal separation for your color combinations creates impact for your message. By using colors that offset against one another, your designs will stand out and get noticed. This technique — commonly known as flat design — is great for creating web based content like banners or social media graphics.

Using a dark background with contrasting bright or neon icons and type is great way to draw attention to something. Dark backgrounds help lighter objects stand out. Making use of bright colors for buttons and call-to-action tabs will compel the reader to click on them.

Alternatively you can use two bright colors to form a modern and contemporary style. Choose colors from the opposite sides of the color wheel (analogous combination) to ensure strong contrast.

Added tip: Limit your color palette. Try to use no more than two colors for optimum effect or overlay alternate tones to create visual harmony.


Either use pre-created textures or make your own using small shapes and patterns.

The key to textures is ensuring there are limited colors and simple composition. You don’t want to divert the attention from the overall design, so your texture should be substantially small, behaving as a background and not hogging attention as the foreground.

Textures can create the illusion of a paper or stock style, like this one above has a recycled paper effect.

This is a particularly nice technique to use if you are creating web content (like an invitation that is being used in email or social media) that would benefit from a more tangible effect, giving it a personal touch.

Added tip: If you are applying an eroded or natural texture, you can take this style a little further by using a handwritten or brush style typeface.

The intention of a texture is to form a three dimensional aspect that lifts the space between your background and your text – boosting the type from the page to help your message sing.


A gradient is excellent to use on digital or print based projects. The beauty of gradients is that you can combine almost any color — whether neutral or bold, a gradient is always a sophisticated choice.

Gradients are a more subtle approach than solid or block color. Whether you apply a radial or linear gradient, you will see a different effect on your designs. The direction will have a direct impact on your audience’s focus point.

One of the major purposes that design offers, is a way to communicate or enhance your message through color, elements, and type.

The significance of a milestone has been visually voiced in the graphic above with the use of a gradient. The clean effect of one color over a gradient background will capture the attention of your audience and give your design space to breathe.

Using an Image

The best way to give your design context is to paint a picture. By including an image in your background, you will grab the attention of your audience quickly and immediately relate your message visually. When overlaying type and elements, keep the detail of your image in mind.

Images with pockets of clear space (negative space) can be used to place type. Remember that all design is deliberate and you don’t want your elements floating on the page. Crop where necessary until you have the best position for your text.

Added tip: Note how the shoes in this design fit around the form of the letters, enhancing the compositional effect of the overall graphic.

Using Shapes

The more detailed the image, the less elaborate your overlaying elements should be. If you have a lot going on in the background as well as your foreground, your visual hierarchy will suffer. In turn this will make it hard to communicate with your audience.

A way to avoid drowning your text is to use shapes: placing shapes behind your type will ensure it is easy to read. This is the favoured technique of those not quite confident enough to apply text directly onto image.

Added tip: Choose a color or tone that offsets the background image, this way your message stands out and the shapes create both functional and compositional effects.


As with many things in graphic design, sometimes the simplest technique is the answer. Increasing the transparency of your background will decrease the noise (detail), making the elements in the foreground easier to read. The biggest mistake people make when using transparency is over-application.

Adjust your transparency to benefit your text, not to the point that your background image becomes thin. This will only result in a lack lustre and weak looking design.

Added tip: Take your designs that one step further by applying a montage effect. Layer the same image you have used in the background, and increase the transparency.

To achieve the montage effect you need to then crop and scale your top image within the grid to make unique and intriguing formations. This technique is fairly advanced, so as always, ensure your copy is easy to read by increasing contrast using the brightness slider and transparency.

Applying a Blur

When using an image as a background, often the detail within the the image makes it hard to overlay text. There are two common techniques you can apply to work around this: adding an overlay or applying blur to your filters. Both should be applied according to your image.

A blur is still a very effective technique to offset your type from your background. When using blur, subtlety is your friend. The key to blur is preserving some texture or detail after application, therefore select an image with interesting shapes and form (like the leaves in the image above). After applying blur, you might want to play with the cropping of your image so that text overlays  more solid areas of your background for optimum contrast.

Applying a Color Overlay

Another way you can reduce the noise of a background image is to add an overlay. An overlay can be applied in various ways — you can apply a simple black or white overlay with transparency to help your text sit off the page and create some contrast.

Or you can apply a color overlay, which is an excellent option to incorporate brand colors. When choosing your image make sure there is enough tonal nuance to give the background more strength.

Color overlay – Backgrounds

Remember to look at the composition of your background image to find the best area for cropping. Make sure your text overlays the image in the right places (like the ocean and land in this case) with lighter text over darker areas and vice versa for easy reading.

Copy Space

Composition is one of the often overlooked and most fundamental elements of design. The way all the elements in your design are placed will affect the way your reader digests it. Therefore you can use your background image as a tool to take advantage of this space.

Copy space is blank or negative space found in an image.

A flat or aerial image where the surface has a flat perspective like the one shown above is a great example of using copy space. The objects around the blank space bring focus to the text and the contrasting tones of the charcoal and white enhance readability.


Patterns are great fun to apply to your background. But much like with many techniques, you have to be careful with your placement. Ensure that the pattern doesn’t detract or drown the content of your design.

A pattern is a way to contain type and it can also be used for text to follow and form itself according to. A geometric pattern will create strong lines, making it easy to overlay text.


Illustration makes for an interactive experience for your reader. The other advantage to illustration is that it can be more tailored to the content of your design. Great for a younger audience, illustrative design is playful and less ambiguous than other background design techniques.

Illustration can just as easily impede on your design and drown your content. To avoid this, use your rule of thirds is a good guideline when placing icons and elements. It is vital that hierarchy and balance is considered.

The type in the design below has been given a more focal point on the page, allowing the message to be communicated clearly, even though more of the space has been taken by illustrations.

White space

Never undermine the simplicity of white space. If your design feels like there are too many elements or it is getting a bit busy, simplify.

Images and elements are often added for the sake of filling surface area. Think of a white background as a tool for enhancing your senses and allowing you to focus on significant elements within your design.

As well as being a particular trend at the moment, minimal design means you need to put more effort into the other features on the page.

Using a grid

Use a grid to form a well composed layout that you can divide into sections to separate content. This is a highly visual application and gives you the opportunity to celebrate imagery.

Using colors from the images and filling blank cells with flat swatches of color is a clever way to create tonal harmony. Place contrasting text over the colored cells or use the intersecting lines as an interesting way to form a unique composition.

For this more muted palette a light grey has been applied to the empty cells of the grid. Your text cells will become a focal point. For visual harmony, weigh up the balance between image and text, ensuring you don’t drown one with the other.

You don’t have to include text to make beautifully formed designs. Use grids with visually similar images to make creative designs. Crop your images to form interesting compositional effects, while considering the way your small grids fit together within the larger grid.

The beauty of images is they help set up your entire design. You aren’t just dropping an image on the page, you are taking advantage of the space, form and composition that image offers you by strategically applying type and image.

Your Turn

Whether it’s a solid color, applying a blur or adding a transparency, choosing a background is an imperative part of the conceptual process. Do you have a design that you feel needs a different background style? Explore all different techniques to find the best solution for your designs.

We hope these background design techniques inspire you to take your creativity to the next level. Push your skills and try something new in your next design, as always – happy designing!

Poppie is passionate about helping people become better designers. As Canva’s Senior Graphic Designer, she’s responsible for many of Canva’s amazing graphics including the daily design tips on Canva’s social, runs educational webinars and workshops and recently authored a book – How to Create a Memorable Brand that Catches On. Got a design question? Ask her on Twitter @poppiepack.


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