What does modern day graphic design have in common with a 250-year-old, penny-pinching French bureaucrat? The silhouette, of course. Allow us to explain. Etienne de Silhouette served as Controller of Finances under Louis XV until his extreme frugality got him fired after only eight months in office. At the same time, a portraiture technique that involved cutting a black outline of the subject’s face in profile was rising in popularity among Europe’s lower classes. It required no paint and minimal artistic skill, so portraits could be done on the cheap, or a la Silhouette. Apparently, inventing a word to mock a public figure didn’t start with Tebowing.

In graphic design, silhouetting doesn’t mean creating a black cutout, but instead using a photo-editing tool to “cut around” a subject and remove it from its original background.

You see this technique used in print and on websites. Silhouetting a photo is a great technique to break up the sameness of rectangular pictures and add visual interest to a page layout. It’s also great if you discover too late that Kelly Clarkson totally photobombed your great shot of Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres. Silhouetting can make Clarkson go away and save the day.

On the flip side, silhouetting can detract from your document or website, if done incorrectly. Here are tips on using silhouetting to aesthetic advantage.

  • DON’T silhouette around an image that isn’t fully in focus. Silhouetting creates a hard line along the edge, so if the edge is blurry, it will look unprofessional.
  • DON’T silhouette an image that isn’t fully intact. For example, if you have a group photo and the shoulder of the person on the end didn’t make it in, silhouetting will make her body look awkwardly sliced off.
  • DON’T get lazy when silhouetting something that can be seen through. For example, silhouetting the outline of a car, but not accounting for its transparent windows, will look very odd.
  • DO silhouette a photo when there is something in the background that you don’t want, such as a logo or the dreaded “photobomber.” If you want to, you can replace the background with a solid color.
  • DO ground the silhouette at the edge of a page, whenever possible. It’s a nice feeling to be walking on air, but seeing feet in the middle of a magazine page will have some readers levitating.

Need help designing your marketing materials? Call Kim Landry at 484-829-0021 or email [email protected].

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