Optical Illusions as Pictures: Get Inspired for Your Next Design

Posted on May 3, 2024 | Updated on May 3, 2024

Have you ever seen images that seem to move on their own? How about the ones that trick your eyes? As it turns out, they can get complex — many involve color theory and psychological phenomena. Here are some optical illusions as pictures you can for inspiration. 

1. Ehrenstein Illusion 

The Ehrenstein illusion makes things look lighter or darker depending on the presence of lines. If you drew radial lines and then erased a circle-shaped hole in the center, your project would look bright. As soon as you trace the empty center circle, the image will appear darker. 

Think of the Ehrenstein illusion as an open-concept house blueprint — those open spaces look brighter than closed–off ones. You could leverage this effect in your projects to draw the viewer’s gaze to a specific spot. 

Source: Influence of Context on Spatial Expanse of Color Spreading in the Watercolor Illusion

2. Watercolor Illusion

Out of all the optical illusions as pictures on this list, this one is the most intriguing. In the watercolor illusion, colored lines trick the brain into thinking emptiness is tinted with a particular hue. Suppose you drew a mess of black squiggly lines and then replaced one section with light blue. Your brain sees the in-between white space as colorful. 

You could use the watercolor illusion in your next project to add color without visually overwhelming the space. People experience colors as mental sensations — meaning this minimalist approach to a colorful design is an imaginative way to drive engagement.

3. Checker Shadow Illusion

In the checker shadow illusion, a cylinder sits on a checkerboard. While the “A” square is in the light, the “B” square is in the cylinder’s shadow. While one looks light and the other looks dark, the two are actually the same shade. You can achieve this effect by separating two sides of a same-colored block with a slightly lighter-colored line. 

You could create some interesting visuals when using this illusion to force viewers’ brains into perceiving the same color as two different shades. It could even make them pay more attention because people engage more with images that give them pause. 

Source: BEYOND

4. Hermann Grid 

The Hermann grid illusion consists of black squares and white lines. You can invert the colors and get the same results. The high contrast makes small dots appear in between the squares. When you look away, the dots disappear. 

While there don’t seem to be many practical applications to the Hermann grid illusion in graphic design, you could use it subtly to hold the viewer’s attention. It emulates movement, a unique trait for print media — meaning your work would become much more eye-catching. 

5. Müller-Lyer Illusion

Typically, the Müller-Lyer illusion consists of two lines — one with outward-facing arrows and one with inward-facing arrows. The second line looks noticeably longer just because of the arrows’ directions. 

In graphic design, the Müller-Lyer illusion applies to letters. If you dabble in typography, you’ve probably dealt with it before. Basically, some fonts size various letters differently to achieve a symmetric look.  

6. Simultaneous Contrast Illusion  

This is one of the most interesting optical illusions as pictures because it relies on color theory. The simultaneous contrast illusion consists of two different blocks and backgrounds. The blocks don’t appear to be the same shade when you look at them. In reality, the background is confusing you — both of the blocks are the same exact hue. 

The simultaneous contrast illusion is simple but impactful. While you’ll most frequently see it referenced with gray blocks and backgrounds, you can use any colors you’d like. The subconscious recognition of sameness viewers will experience draws them in. According to one study, it also influences consumers’ willingness to buy because it impacts their perceptions about a product’s value.

7. Delboeuf illusion 

Two same-size objects will look entirely different depending on the size of the line around them. If you draw one outer line closely around the first inner circle and another outer line far away from the second inner circle, they’ll appear to be different sizes. Since one appears to take up more space, your brain assumes it’s bigger. 

Illusory size effects are intriguing because they force the viewer’s attention toward something without taking up any additional space or using eye-catching colors. Experimenting with the Delboeuf illusion could visually elevate your projects.

Source: Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior

8. Jastrow Illusion 

Sometimes, optical illusions as pictures demonstrate illusory size. Sometimes, two curved objects of the same size will look different sizes when placed near each other. This is because your viewing angle — things farther away tend to look smaller. Your brain essentially short circuits and assumes the object in front must be closer and larger. 

You could use this effect to create engaging visuals while maintaining symmetry — and balance — throughout your design. Viewers would be subconsciously drawn to it because some part of their mind realizes the two seemingly different-sized objects are the same. 

9. Mach Bands

Mach bands usually appear as a series of gray gradient rectangles. At first glance, they appear to have shadows. When you separate each shade with a thick white line, the shadows disappear. The illusion of luminance happens when your brain overestimates contrast. 

This illusory shading could be helpful if you’re trying to develop a minimalist or simplistic project. You don’t have to rely on shades or tints to force viewers to perceive depth in your design. If you’re strategic about it, you could create some exciting visuals. 

Source: Codehal

10. Parallax Effect

Sometimes, optical illusions as pictures aren’t enough to capture the true extent of an illusory phenomenon. The parallax effect uses layers and motion to give viewers the illusion of movement while scrolling. When the background image moves slowly, the midground image moves at a normal pace, and the foreground image moves quickly, giving the illusion of depth. 

If you design digitally or want to elevate your website’s look, consider using the parallax effect. It can make your landing page more memorable and professional. Fortunately, implementing it is relatively simple. You can add this scrolling effect by using cascading style sheets — a coding language —  and your own graphics. 

11. Hering Illusion

The Hering illusion makes straight lines look curved. If you draw two straight lines and place them on top of a radial background — think bicycle spokes — they appear to bend in the middle. This is because of spatial warping and your brain’s inability to process the image’s complexity. 

Interestingly enough, the Hering illusion also creates the sensation of movement on digital devices. The monitor and image refresh simultaneously while you scroll, making them look alive. You could use this effect to give your designs depth without taking up any extra space. 

Source: Color Spreading, Neon Color Spreading, and Watercolor Illusion

12. Neon Color Spreading 

Neon color spreading makes white areas look filtered with color. The reason is because of flank transparency — a phenomenon where you perceive color where there is none. When you replace black line segments with color, your brain fills in the gaps. 

If you placed a white grid of squares over a painting — essentially turning into a pattern of colored lines — you’d still see the painting. If you squinted, you’d be able to make it out like normal. 

Notably, luminance and hue matter — you can’t can’t just use black and gray. The most impactful use of the neon color-spreading effect will happen when you use bright, loud hues against stark whites, blacks, and grays.

Use These Optical Illusion Pictures for Inspiration 

While graphic designers don’t often use optical illusions for inspiration, their work seems so much more impactful when they do. Hopefully, these optical illusions as pictures inspire you to get creative with your next project.

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