Gradients are one of the most versatile ways to transform the look and feel of any design. Learn some beginner and intermediate ways to create your own gradients, and how to apply them to a design for a modern look.

Cover image via Plasteed

In this all-encompassing guide to gradients we’ll cover. . .

  • Using gradients to power your designs
  • Creating simple gradients
  • Creating complex gradients
  • Incorporating gradients into your artwork

Gradients consist of two or more hues flowing into one another, creating a gradual blend of color across shapes, typography, images, and more. Color gradients continue evolving to fit modern day trends, but even then, the options for gradients are endless. They cover a wide range of looks – they can be as subtle as adding a monochromatic hue for a slight transition, or as obvious as those old rainbow text effects and backgrounds in PowerPoint that we came to know and love.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – Rainbow Gradient

Image via Rainbow Nima

Today, you’ll see gradients incorporated into brand campaigns, like in Hulu’s web and television interface or in Mac Cosmetics’s holographic campaign. Hulu’s soft gradients act as transitions while strengthening the brand identity with its dominance as a unifying element. On the other side of the spectrum, Mac Cosmetics goes wild with a trendy iridescent gradient that we like to call “Holographic Foil,” used to promote their holographic makeup line.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – Vector Image with Gradient

Image via Droidworker. Gradients applied to vector shapes. 

While gradients are both visually and aesthetically pleasing, they also help by incorporating shadows and highlights to bring a flat design to life. Adding darker or lighter tones to a solid color brings in three-dimensional features to an otherwise two-dimensional design. Subtle gradients can soften geometric designs and create a focal point in your design. The two-toned gradients applied to the mountaintops above creates a realistic landscape by incorporating points of natural light.

Now that we’ve gone over gradients and their endless presence in graphic design, let’s dive into how you can quickly make your own custom gradients in Adobe Creative Cloud.


How to Create Simple Gradients in Illustrator

For an in-depth guide, check out our complete article on how to use the gradient tool in Illustrator.

Adobe Illustrator’s Gradient Tool is a true treasure; with it, you can apply your own custom gradients to vector shapes, strokes, and compound shapes, along with saving as a swatch to refer to in the future.
Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Use the Gradient Tool in Illustrator
Start by drawing a vector shape with the Shapes Tool and bringing up the Gradient panel by navigating to Window > Gradient. With this handy palette, you can:

  • Select from a range of presets within the dropdown menu located on the upper left hand side
  • Denote the type of gradient: linear or radial
  • Adjust the angle of your linear gradient or the radius of your radial gradient
  • Bring in custom swatches from the Swatches panel by clicking and dragging swatches to the gradient slider
  • Alter the location of each gradient stop and midpoint within the gradient slider
  • Delete a gradient stop by selecting the trash can icon or duplicate the stop by holding down the Option key and dragging across the slider

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Use the Gradient Tool in Illustrator

The fun doesn’t stop here; you can also apply these gradients to a shape’s stroke. Simply add a stroke color to your shape or drag the gradient fill to the stroke box. Then, head over to the Stroke option within the Gradient panel to designate your gradient stroke options.

  1. Use the first option to apply your gradient within the stroke, just like how it’s applied to a solid shape.
  2. Use the second option to create the gradient along the stroke; this command is best applied to a stand-alone line segment or an open shape due to its sudden stop along the stroke.
  3. Use the third option to create a gradient across the stroke, starting the blend of color from the outside and transitioning inwards.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Use the Gradient Tool in Illustrator

Gradients are typically applied to a single vector shape, but you can easily disperse a single gradient to multiple vector shapes with the handy Compound Path command. Draw out your shapes, then select with the Selection Tool (V) and make a compound path by clicking Command+8 or going to Object > Compound Path > Make. You can easily release the compound path by selecting Shift+Option+Command+8 or navigating to Object > Compound Path > Release.

Ready to save your swatch to refer back to in your design? Head over to the Swatches panel, click on the hamburger dropdown, and select New Swatch. Name your gradient swatch and click OK to see your swatch pop up within the panel.

Excited to know more about what you can do in Illustrator? Check these out:


How to Create Simple Gradients in Photoshop

See our all-encompassing guide to the gradient tool in Photoshop.

The Gradient Tool in Photoshop operates differently than the Gradient Tool in Illustrator. Rather than clicking a vector object and applying the gradient, you simply click and drag across a new layer for the gradient.
Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Use the Gradient Tool in Photoshop
Image via Kseniia Perminova. Created using gradient overlay. 

Within Adobe Photoshop, you can apply a multitude of solid gradient fills: linear, radial, angle, reflected, and diamond.

  • Linear: Hues transition in a linear fashion depending on the flow and direction dictated by the cursor.
  • Radial: Hues radiate outwards in a circular fashion; this gradient is best applied to round shapes.
  • Angle: The starting hue diffuses into the end hue in a clockwise motion around the dictated angle.
  • Reflected: This gradient mimics a mirrored reflection, with the end hue on both sides of the starting hue.
  • Diamond: As the name states, this gradient appears like a diamond; the starting hue blends into the end hue to produce a diamond shape.

Editing existing gradients is done in just a few steps within the Gradient Editor. When the Gradient Tool is activated, click on the gradient fill dialog box at the top of the toolbar. With the Gradient Editor, you can:

  • Select from a range of presets
  • Edit gradient names
  • Create a solid or noise gradient with the gradient slider options
  • Save your own gradient files

Gradients in Photoshop can be applied as a visually interesting background or as a transformative overlay. Gradients enhance photos by bringing in vivid gradient overlays, seen above, or by creating impressive duotone looks to minimalist imagery, seen below. Follow the links to go through step-by-step tutorials on how to recreate these stunning on-trend looks.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Use the Gradient Tool in Photoshop

Image via Bogdan Sonjachnyj. Created using duotone effect.

Check out more essential Photoshop tools and tips to expand your know-how:


How to Create Complex Gradients

We adapted this quick guide from our in-depth tutorial on creating fluorescent gradients with the mesh tool in Illustrator.

The all-powerful Mesh Tool in Adobe Illustrator allows you to create more fluid gradients with several hues. This tool works similar to the Gradient Tool in Illustrator, but with more flexibility in regards to the flow of color.

The options are endless with gradient meshes; you can create trendy holographic and fluorescent gradients or bring life to a two-dimensional vector shape with natural shadows and highlights.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create Complex Gradients

Before plotting your points, find color palettes that define the look you are going for. Do you want a vibrant or neon appeal? Or, are you looking for something more toned down? Look through these 101 Color Combinations to inspire you.

Draw out a vector shape with the Shapes Tool and navigate to the Mesh Tool (U) to begin your gradient journey. With the Mesh Tool, you can manually assign mesh points by clicking within the shape. To automate the mesh points instead, navigate to Object > Create Gradient Mesh and specify the number of rows and columns for the mesh. This will give you evenly spaced out mesh points instead of a random configuration.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create Complex Gradients

Using the Direct Selection Tool (A), click each mesh point and assign a color. Manipulate each point as you would with the Pen Tool, adjusting the bezier curves to change the flow and appearance of the gradient. Take your time with meshes and play around with unique color combinations for a truly eye-catching gradient.


How to Incorporate Gradients into Your Artwork and Designs

Now that we’ve gone over the essential gradient tools, let’s create a stunning poster with gradients in Adobe InDesign. Follow this in-depth tutorial to create a modern poster with a neon-pastel gradient. I’m going to take this tutorial and put my own creative spin on the overall design.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

Begin by opening up the InDesign program and setting your page dimensions to A3, found within the Print Presets, or any custom dimension you decide.

Step 1: Organize Layers

It’s always important to label and organize your layers before building out your design, especially if it features multiple components. Bring up the Layers panel by navigating to Window > Layers.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

Create five layers with the folded square icon and double-click to rename each one. Label your layers Image BehindGradient BackgroundImage in FrontCircle, and Texture Overlay. Or, you can name the layers in a way that works best for you.

Step 2: Create Gradient Background

Before we begin creating our gradient background, let’s search for inspiration on colors that can be used. Warm pinks and oranges with a subtle hint of blue, found in our 101 color combinations, fits the bill.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

To begin with I’m going to take the first three hues in the color palette and use them as my gradient background. Bring up the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches) to add your new swatches. Click on the hamburger dropdown and select New Color Swatch. This will bring up a pop-up window to input your color values or hex code, as seen in the palettes above.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

Change your Color Type to Process and the Color Mode to RGB and input the six-digit hex codes. Click Add to bring into the Swatches panel, then select Done. Rinse and repeat for the remaining hues.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

Head back to the Swatches panel and click on the hamburger dropdown to select New Gradient Swatch. Make sure your Stop Color is specified to Swatches. You’ll see the swatches we added earlier; simply click on the gradient ramp to add your swatches. I started with the light blue, fading into the orange, and then into the pink hue. To adjust the location of each gradient stop, enter a numerical value into the Location box or drag the gradient stop along the ramp. Click Add, then Done to return to your document.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

Select the Gradient Background layer first and then draw out a rectangle across your entire document with the Rectangle Tool (M). Specify the fill with the Background Gradient swatch. Bring up the Gradient panel with Window > Color > Gradient and set the angle of your gradient to 90 degrees.

Navigate over to the Effects panel (Window > Effects) and specify the background layer in the Overlay blend mode at 100% Opacity to prepare for the Image Behind layer.

Step 3: Add Circle Gradient

Click over to the Circle layer and lock all other layers. Draw out your shape with the Ellipse Tool (L), keeping it around 9 inches in diameter. Hold down the Shift key to constrain proportions, then align the shape to the the page using the Align palette. Center the circle both vertically and horizontally for a symmetrical composition.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

For the circle, we will select the Background Gradient within the Swatches as its fill. Reverse the gradient within the Gradient menu to offset the background. Bring up the Effects menu (Window > Effects) and set the circle at 60% Opacity as an Overlay blend mode.

Step 4: Place Images into Layers

To go for a trendy sunset appeal, I placed this cloudy image onto the Image Behind layer and set at 50% Opacity. Go to File > Place or hit Command D to drop your image into InDesign. Without a feathered look, the image abruptly stops within the document. Let’s add a Gradient Feather to smooth out the edges. Click on the image with the Selection Tool and then right-click to bring up a dropdown menu. Navigate to Effects and then select Gradient Feather to bring up the Effects dialog box.
Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients
Make sure your gradient stops consist of black transitioning into a white at 90 degrees. This effect feathers the top portion of your image into the background. Hit OK to return to your design.

Let’s isolate the Image in Front layer and lock all other layers. With the Ellipse Frame Tool, draw out a circle that matches the same dimensions as your gradient circle. Hit Command D or go to File > Place to bring up the same image we used earlier.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

Resize the image to fit the dimensions of the Image Behind photograph and then alter the look of your image by changing the blend mode to Soft Light and the Opacity to 75%.

Step 5: Place Texture Overlay

Let’s add some character to our sunsets with some grainy texture. Click over to the Texture Overlay layer and place your texture into the program with Command D or File > Place.

Set the texture layer to the Overlay blend mode and bring the opacity down to 15%. To finish off the design, let’s add a subtle gradient stroke along the border of the design. Using the Rectangle Tool, draw out your border and then align the border to the page both horizontally and vertically.

Adjust the stroke point to 7 points and specify the stroke as your Background Gradient. In the Effects panel, set the blend mode to Screen at 60% opacity. This allows the image to subtly show through the border while mimicking the effects throughout.

Export your design with Command E and save as a JPEG for online use.

Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design – How to Create a Modern Poster With Gradients

That’s all, folks! Gradients are extremely versatile and can be used in a multitude of ways, from trendy poster designs to unique image effects in Photoshop to neon mesh gradients in Illustrator.


For more comprehensive tool guides and tutorials, check out these articles.