A Guide to Textures in Design

 In Best Practices

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Most of us think of texture as something you feel when you run your fingers over something. But whether it be a brick wall or a marble countertop, you see surfaces with your eyes before you ever touch them with your hands.

In physical art, texture is determined by the materials you use; clumps of paint or carved stone, for example. When it comes to graphic design, artists aren’t limited to the materials they use to achieve texture.

Here are some answers to common questions about texture in design, specifically graphic design, as well as some tips, tricks, and best practices for improving your art with textures.

What Is Texture in Art and Design?

Black and white watercolor on a wrinkly paper

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Texture is the surface feel of an object. For example, if you run your hand along a brick and then the hood of a car, they feel very different to the touch. In art, texture can be physical, such as a multimedia sculpture or implied, like a photograph of a piece of paper that has been crumpled up and then smoothed flat.

Why Is Texture Important in Design?

Composition of the sea splashing against rocks made of torn pieces of vintage paper, carton, and torchon.

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In design, especially online where all textures are implied rather than actual, texture brings organic life and adds visual interest to a design. Without texture in design, every image would appear to be completely “flat” and two dimensional on a page.

While flat design has its place and can be impactful on its own, if we only had flat design, we’d get pretty bored. Texture can help your designs stand out in a crowded environment by adding a sense of depth, age, nature, and more to an image or webpage.

How Can You Use Texture in Design?

Blank grained and scratched film strip texture background

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While texture can be used in countless ways, those who are just starting to experiment with implied texture may want to start with a texture overlay or background.

Texture Overlays

Overlay textures could be the easiest way to add some extra visual interest to a design. Texture overlays can be applied to any design from an illustration to a photograph.

Even if you’ve never touched an overlay in your photo editing software, you’ve probably applied texture overlays in your photos. Filters on phone apps like Instagram are essentially textures that are overlaid on your image.

Adding basic texture overlays isn’t any harder on your computer than it is to pop a filter onto a photo in an app.

The first step is choosing a texture. You can make your own texture, but you may find it easier to browse a texture library like iStock’s.

After you choose your desired texture, open your original image in your photo editing software of choice. Add your texture overlay as a new layer on top of your original image.

From there, experiment with different opacity levels and some blend modes. You can use a layer mask or the eraser tool to remove or mellow any parts of the texture image that you don’t like or don’t want to have texturized.

Once you get comfortable with adding complete texture overlays, you can experiment with removing the texture from entire elements of your image. While using a texture overlay as you would a filter is a great way to add depth to an image, applying texture overlays to specific parts of an image can add even more visual interest.

Take, for example, the cover of False Bingo by Jac Jemc. Though it’s subtle, you can see there’s a slightly dirtied texture to the top, white element of the book cover. It creates a sense of age and is more visually unique than a plain white cover. However, that texture isn’t applied to those green shapes and icons. This (along with some smart shading) gives a three-dimensional feel to the cover.

Texture Backgrounds

Bearded man reading a book while leaning up against a textured orange wall

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A textured background can add depth to otherwise flat illustrations and photographs.

For example, imagine an image of a model shot in a studio with a neutral backdrop. Adding a brushed metal texture as the background could add a sense of location or mood to that photograph without taking attention away from the focus of the portrait—the model.

There are two ways to do a textured background. The first is to separate the background from the foreground, and add the texture with some opacity to the background only. The other way is to completely replace the existing background with a textured background.

How to Make a Textured Background

Adding a textured background has a few more steps than adding a textured overlay. Whether you’re adding an opaque overlay to the background or are replacing it entirely with the new texture, you’ll mostly follow the same steps.

First, like with the textured overlay, you need to choose your texture.

From there, open the original image or illustration in your photo editing software of choice. Use the magic wand tool (or something similar) to select the foreground. The foreground is anything for which you do not want the background texture applied. Once you make that selection, you’ll need to select and save it.

Now, open the background in your photo editing software as a new layer above the original image. If you want your texture to be opaque, this is the time to adjust that opacity. Otherwise, the texture you chose will replace the background from the original image.

Then, you’ll load the saved selection from earlier (your foreground). In some cases, you’ll choose Selectin your toolbar and then Load Selection. Next, choose Add a New Layer Mask in your adjustment layers. From there, play with the blend modes until you’re happy with the textured background.

What Are the Two Types of Textures?

In art, there are two types of texture: actual and visual. Actual texture is texture that you can feel, like paint built upon a canvas or marble on a sculpture. Visual texture is implied texture that’s achieved through lines, shading, and use of color.

Within the two main types of textures, there are subtypes of textures. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the subtypes of visual textures, namely the implied texture in illustrations.

Examples of Common Textures

Marble Texture

Close-up of green marble polished surface

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Since we often associate marble with having a smooth texture (e.g., marble countertops or floors), it might sound odd that we’d include it here. However, marble has a strong visual texture in its veining that adds substantial implied texture even though it’s smooth to the touch.

Marble is having a moment right now, making it a great candidate for modernizing your designs. We’re especially fans of marble with pastel colors running through it for a softer texture. If you want a harder look, we recommend standard, more natural marbles.

Distressed Texture

Close-up image of an ice background with many scratches

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Weathered textures, aka distressed textures, add a sense of age (or if you’re Indiana Jones, “the mileage”) to your designs. If you want to add a feeling of time, grit, or nostalgia to your designs, we recommend looking into distressed textures.

Imagine the difference between a new hardcover book and one that’s been circulating through a library for decades. It will have wear marks, scrapes, possibly coffee stains. All of these are visual cues that the item is either older or has lived a full life. If you’re making a design and you want it to look a little rough around the edges, distressed textures are for you.

Vintage or Retro Texture

Background of old blank paper

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Like distressed textures, vintage and retro textures add a sense of age to your designs but with a little less grit. Vintage textures and retro textures can be anything that takes you back to a certain place or time.

Examples of vintage textures can include crumpled paper, pixelation, linen textures, a gentle dot or grain pattern, floral textures, and brush stroke textures.

Metal Texture

Golden metal sheet background with crease texture

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Metal or metallic textures can add a hard, industrial edge to your designs. Metal textures can be anything from brushed copper to smooth, stainless steel, to a chain link pattern. You can even find metal gradient textures in metallic color tones.

Wood Texture

Overhead view of light brown wooden table

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Wood textures can add a natural or rustic look to your designs. You can find textures mimicking the look of bark or those that focus on the grain of wood and rings of trees. You can also find textures that have different wood stain colors or finishes.

If you’re looking for a texture that will enhance your designs, browse the iStock texture library for everything from shiplap to brick wall assets, and add visual interest and complexity to your designs.

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