Understanding figure and ground as well as their relationship to one another is critical in making up designs that encompass a degree of complexity but are not too overwhelming or confusing to the viewer. Figure is used to refer to a portion/shape/image that is “sitting on top of” the backdrop, or ground. Figure/ground ambiguity involves the contrast between figure and ground to make up additional interest in the image. Famous examples of this include Edgar Rubin’s Vase/Face, where it is difficult for the viewer to discern whether the image is a face or a vase and because of the negative space and contrast.
Another example that you might be familiar with pertaining to this concept is in the old school-yard question:
“Is the Zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes?”
However since figure appears in the foreground, while ground makes up the surrounding area, the answer above is probably white with black stripes, however it is an interesting mental exercise to take a different perspective for a moment. Since the answer can be pretty easily determined, this example does not involve a good deal of figure/ground ambiguity.
Another example I chose to use would be the Rorschach Ink Blot tests, since while they are somewhat intentionally abstract they provide a good example of contract between figure and ground as well as the ambiguity that can be involved in a visual.
In this example the ambiguity is quite intentional as they were originally to serve as a test to see what the viewer “saw” in the abstractions. While the focus of this particular exercise was more to see what the viewer would associate with the figure part of the image, since they were just using two colors (one for the background and one for the ink) it can also be an example since the contrast of the ground is necessary to compose and distinguish the figure.