The drop shadow gets a bad rap, but it can be surprisingly functional. See how this effect can improve your designs when used subtly and in moderation.

Cover image via MJgraphics.

Perhaps the most divisive attribute in visual design, the drop shadow has had a tumultuous existence. It is not hard to find someone with a hard line stance on them, and others in the industry will agree:

“Using amateurish drop-shadows or gradients is almost as bad as affixing a scarlet letter to your shirt to let the world know you’re a beginner or a hack. Even subtle, barely noticeable mistakes can create tensions that undermine otherwise beautiful and effective designs.” – Web Designer Depot.com

In real life and on the internet, the hate can sometimes smother the support for this functional and often quite useful effect. But somewhere between hate and love, judicious and appropriate usage of drop shadows does exist. As with all things, moderation is key. Read on to discover how to employ the drop shadow tastefully in your own designs.

Typically Acceptable Uses of Drop Shadow

Add Depth to Two-Dimensionality

In Defense of the Drop Shadow: How to Use This Functional Effect – Make it Pop

Image via Publicis QMP, Dublin, Ireland

Unless you must adhere to flat design principles, you can use a shadow to “lift” a subject and highlight importance or suggest depth. In some cases you’ll simply be directed to use a drop shadow because your boss thinks it’s the only way to “make something pop.” In those instances, you can apply your knowledge with skill and tact in order to meet the needs of your employer and your own set of standards. If there’s a better option than a drop shadow, don’t be afraid to point it out.

In Digital Mock-Ups

In Defense of the Drop Shadow: How to Use This Functional Effect – Digital Mock-Ups

Image via Renee Griffin

Present your work on a blank artboard with the help of a drop shadow. In lieu of artificial backgrounds, you can use a drop shadow on clean white or gray backgrounds for client review. This helps to differentiate between the piece and the background, which further helps your clients imagine the dimensions of the proposed finished piece.

Improve Headline Readability on a Busy Background

In Defense of the Drop Shadow: How to Use This Functional Effect – Readability
Drop shadow on a headline helps the copy stand out on a busy background. The font is FF Carina, used for its blend of delicate and bold.

Drop shadows can help you overcome readability obstacles, especially in the case of a headline laid over an image. Keep in mind, this rule of thumb only works for shorter headline copy. If you’re trying to lay a large block of copy over a photo of autumn leaves or a crowd of people, like in the image below, it’s probably better to find a different readability solution. Drop shadow works in moderation – the subtler, the better.

In Defense of the Drop Shadow: How to Use This Functional Effect – Readability
On long passages of text, drop shadow will add more chaos to an already busy image.

Image via Kichigin.

Be Thoughtful and Intentional

The drop shadow has a place in your toolbox, but bear in mind that its overuse can make a design seem amateurish. Think of it as a functional effect rather than something decorative. Thoughtful decision-making, in general, will prevent bad habits from leading to a bland, or worse, stagnant, body of work.

Whichever side of this debate you find yourself on, defend your beliefs with substance and thoughtfulness. Your expertise and individual style will help you determine when to use or not use all the techniques available to you.