Black design work doesn’t have to be dull or boring. Here’s how to use dark backgrounds to enrich your designs and make them captivating and powerful.

Black backgrounds are having a moment in design. Impactful and moody, dark backgrounds are also versatile. Paired with the right colors, gradients and textures they can add drama and gothic flair to your layouts.

Here we look at five tips for using dark backgrounds in your designs. Whether you’re creating a poster, website or magazine, you’ll be able to apply these techniques to any project to give your design a dose of dark drama.


1: Use Rich Black

The default black swatch in most design software isn’t the strongest black you can achieve. For print design projects, it’s particularly important to make your black as deep as possible to achieve that sought-after blackout effect. This will also help you avoid any grey tones on printing.

Designers opt to create their own “rich black” swatches, which have increased levels of cyan, magenta, and yellow to darken the swatch. This can give it a cool or warm tint.

There’s no single correct value for a rich black color swatch. By increasing the level of yellow you can achieve a warmer black, while upping the level of cyan will give a cooler result.

Try out these different rich black levels in your software of choice to create subtly different rich blacks on your print designs:

Cool Rich Black: C=60 M=50 Y=40 K=100

Warm Rich Black: C=40 M=60 Y=60 K=100

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Use a Rich Black

2: Try a Monochrome Palette

Black and white is a timeless and classic color combination, and it still feels as fresh and relevant in design now. This is the most high-contrast color pairing you can have, so it suits advertising and poster work perfectly. You can also make websites feel more immersive by using white type over a dark background.

Typography and logos look particularly impactful set in white against a dark background. In this poster layout I created in Adobe InDesign, I’ve paired white type set in two different style of the font Blackout, against a background with a rich black color fill.

The stenciling design of the font is enhanced though the cut-out effect created by the black-white contrast, which adds something further to the design. It’s such a simple color pairing, but it never fails to be effective.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Try Monochrome

3: Pair With Neon

Evocative of nightlife and the styling of 1980s-era movies like Tron and Blade Runner, teaming up a black background with neon text is another failsafe technique for keeping your dark backgrounds punchy.

To recreate a lit-up effect, look to glow effects (in InDesign, go to Object > Effects > Outer Glow) to replicate the look of neon signage.

In this example, I’ve used two neon swatches (R=251 G=4 B=183; R=4 G=221 B=91) to create a tribute to punk style. Look to the album artwork created for British band The Sex Pistols for ultimate punk neon inspiration.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Pair Black with Neon

Here, I’ve created a gradient swatch (in InDesign, from the Swatches panel choose New Gradient Swatch from the panel’s main menu) which combines four neon swatches to create a sunset effect, before applying this to the text of the poster.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — New Gradient Swatch
How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Neon Gradient Text

4: Be Playful With Gradients and Noise

The early Art Deco period is a fantastic resource for finding inspiring monochrome designs. In the days before full-color printing was widespread (color advertising in print newspapers and magazines only became more commonplace after 1910), poster designers had to use textures, transparencies and gradients to create contrast and 3D dynamism on their layouts.

This version of the poster design takes its cues from this golden era of advertising design. Soft gradients make the text appear as if it’s fading into the shadows, while a noise filter adds vintage-style grainy texture.

To achieve the look in InDesign, go to Object > Effects > Inner Glow, increasing the level of Noise. Apply a gradient by going to Object > Effects > Gradient Feather.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Play with Gradients

5: Make Your Photos Emerge from the Darkness

Looking for a way to make still lifes and portraits look more dramatic and engaging?

You can use dark backgrounds as a blank canvas for making your images appear as if they’re emerging from darkness. It’s an effective technique for giving your photos a theatrical edge.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Emerging Effect

Here’s how to achieve the effect in InDesign.

Step 1

Use the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) to create a shape across the whole page, setting the Fill Color (from the Swatches panel) to either [Black] or a rich black swatch.

You’ll need a photo with either a black or transparent background. Here I’ve used this classical statue image.

Use the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) to create an image frame on the page, and File > Place. Choose your image and click Open.

Pull the edges of the image frame tightly around the silhouette of the image.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Rectangle Frame Tool

Step 2

With the image frame selected go to Object > Effects > Gradient Feather. Set the Type to Radial.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Gradient Feather

Step 3

Click on Inner Glow in the panel’s left-hand menu.

Change the Mode to Normal, and increase the levels of Noise to around 30%.

Then click OK to exit the window.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Inner Glow

Step 4

This effect is more dramatic if you spotlight the central part of the image.

Use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a shape roughly over the area you want to highlight, setting the Fill Color to [Paper].

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Pen Tool

With the shape selected go to Object > Effects > Transparency. Set the Mode to Screen and bring the Opacity down to about 5%.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Transparency

Then click on Directional Feather. Set the Feather Width for all edges of the shape to 5 mm, before clicking OK.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — Feather Width

The result will be a dramatic “emerging” photo, with the highlight adding an extra 3D quality to the design.

How to Use Dark and Dramatic Backgrounds in Your Designs — 3D Quality

Being aware of current trends and learning how to apply these to your designs is the best way to keep your work looking fresh and appealing. If you’re looking for more trend-led tutorials, don’t miss these tips on how to apply the experimental type trend to your designs.


Want to learn more about design? Check out these articles: