“Figure” is an item/design/image that is in the forefront of the setting, or “ground.” Each is only visible when they are in contrast with one another. Figure/ground ambiguity plays off the balance and contrast of figure/ground. This photo to the left is a common example of ambiguity. I’ve seen this image on internet advertisements or articles for years because it draws people in – what is it? What does it mean? In relation to figure/ground, we would not be able to see either figure (the vase or faces) if they were not contrasting colors.
Ambiguity makes designs more interesting for the viewers. This specific photo creates interest because the two figures are fighting for our attention. The audience is unsure if the focal point is the two white faces or the black vase in the center. The audience is unsure what the creator intends for us to see. At first glance, we might not see either figure. This complexity makes the image more interesting than if it was just two faces looking at each other or just a black vase. Our mind and eyes are constantly battling one another.
Obviously, this image is purely ornamental. It is for viewing pleasure only – it doesn’t give a message, meaning, or contribute anything to society. Part of its ambiguity makes the image more intriguing, however. These ambiguous-style images have been created for hundreds of years, so there is a popularity and mystery surrounding them. I feel like the viewer gets a sense of pride gets when they finally see each figure. It is the same joy we feel when completing a puzzle, participating in a mind-boggling board game, or identifying patterns. We feel we are solving a problem and being useful. So, although the image is not particularly functional, it does make viewers feel productive.