How to Use Contrasts and Gradients for Infographics

By Justin Beegel, MBA, The Infographic World Team

One of the not-so-basic functions of Adobe Illustrator that you may want to play around with is gradients. Gradients and contrasts are some features that add extra artistic flair to your infographics. You certainly don’t need all these features in your bag of tricks, but they’re fun, and sometimes they add the perfect finishing touch to an infographic.

Using the Gradient tool is pretty straightforward. A gradient is simply one color fading into another color. For example, filling a square with a gradient that goes from blue at the top to white at the bottom would create a quick-and-easy sky background in a drawing.

But, the fact that you can have multiple colors in a blend, can blend to 100 percent transparency, and can decide between a straight (linear) blend or a circular (radial) makes this tool one of the most powerful drawing tools in Illustrator’s toolbox. The uses for the tool are limited only by one’s imagination.

Gradients can be applied to any vector object as long as it’s a closed shape.

You can apply a gradient fill to type, to shapes that you have drawn, or across several shapes at once. And, as of Illustrator CS6, a gradient can even be applied to a line or stroke. So if you try to apply a gradient, and it looks like it didn’t happen, check that you didn’t accidentally apply it to the stroke instead of the fill.

To understand how the tool works, here’s a simple example to create contrast and depth in a drawing. Here is how to make two red circles and use a radial fill to make the first one look more 3D.

  1. Create two red circles.

  2. Choose Window→Gradient.

  3. Select the first red circle and apply a blend.

    Illustrator provides some default blends to start, which you can access from the Gradient tab or from among the swatches. (Note: Any blends that you create and want to keep can be saved to your swatches when you’re done.)

  4. Now change the colors in the gradient. Change the white part of the gradient to red:

    • a. Select the white swatch.

    • b. Adjust the color in your color window or by double-clicking the white square to open a color swatch list that you can select from.

At this point, the gradient is “linear,” going from left to right. Changing it to a radial fill will make the shading look more ball-like. Follow the bouncing ball:

  1. With the circle selected, activate the Gradient tool found in the Tools palette.

  2. Click and drag from a point within the circle.

    The start point will be red, and the end will be black. Experiment with where you click and drag to get your gradient just where you want it. You can also physically move and rotate the gradient annotator bar with your gradient tool. See this figure.

    Changing the fill to alter appearance.

    Changing the fill to alter appearance.

And here is how you can add a third color:

  1. Hover the cursor underneath the gradient slider on the Gradient tab.

    You’ll get a little plus symbol.

  2. Click to add a third color.

    Move the three color stops left and right to see how they change where the color transitions happen.

  3. Change the black swatch to a dark red.

    Now the shading looks more subtle. You can add as many color stops as you want, including white at the far left if you want to create a really sharp contrast. See the figure.

    Experimenting with shading on your infographics.

    Experimenting with shading on your infographics.