Case #MMM001 - Gross Misconduct with Drop Shadows - Radiant

The Radiant Blog

Monday Morning Misdemeanors is a series of weekly posts written by Graphic Designer, Derek Gyssels. In this series, Derek is going to hone in on a number of common problems that crop up in graphic designs and then give you the tools to avoid them which will give your designs a professional polish.


Before I get started I would like the record to show that I myself am a former and rehabilitated drop shadow abuser. This has been an issue I have noticed for a long time but it seems in the last few weeks my attention has been drawn to how often drop shadows ruin a design. A long time ago, before I even knew graphic design as a job option, drop shadows were hard to produce for graphic pieces. Then in the early/mid 90's technology and software advancements made them achievable with a few clicks of the mouse. Since then, drop shadows have become as prevalent in design as cheese hats are at a Green Bay Packers game, and not to mention, just as stylish.

What is the actual infraction here? Most times it's one of three things to do with the application. For an example I will draw on something I saw in a menu at a restaurant two weekends ago.

Issue 1: Whoever had designed the menu took the time to take pictures of most of the menu items and crop them out to place them into the menu. Then they foolishly thought to add drop shadows in what I will assume was an attempt to make them "pop" (a term I really dislike) or add some dimension. The problem here however was that the pictures were shot from a 3/4 angle so the drop shadow actually served to make the food pictures look like flat cutouts floating off the page.

Issue 2: The second problem with them was the colour of the drop shadow. There was a nice background to the menu and the colour of the drop shadow did not mesh well with it. My guess was that they just used the default black that Photoshop or other design apps provide you with when you first apply the style. To correct something like this think about your own shadow on a summer day on the grass or the sand at the beach. While your shadow is for the most part a black/grey elements of the environment play a role in the final colour of the shadow. Light bounces all over the place influencing colour. Thats why your shadow isn't solid black, because other light reflecting from different sources in the environment reduce how dark the shadow is. This leads nicely into the third infraction.

Issue 3: The edges or "feathering" of shadows is a major issue as well. Again, let's imagine you're outside on a summer day. Have you ever seen your shadow with a big fuzzy edge? I don't think so, because neither have I. If you are adding a drop shadow to something like a well-lit plate of food you should have a drop shadow with a fairly crisp edge.

All three of these problems originate from a single issue, “auto styles”. Most applications give you the ability to simply add styles to layers or objects but those defaults don't do work for all scenarios. As the designer, it is up to you to adjust your settings to make things work. A lot of times your design would benefit from a custom shadow using layers, filters and blending modes. But that is a whole different ball of wax and I believe points to a final issue.

Drop shadows are best used for flat objects like a book on a table, photograph or any other object your looking at from directly above. Drop shadows are also great on menus or boxes in website design that you're simply trying to add a little extra emphasis to do. Occasionally you can even use a drop shadow on type if the type is on an image or busy background, but even that takes some caution and finesse.

So there you have it, a fairly simple over view of drop shadow use and abuse. I would be happy to answer any questions or comments, simply leave one on this post and I will reply.