Can space really be negative?

The old saying is that the optimist sees the glass as half full, while the pessimist sees the glass as half empty. It is, however, the opportunist who drinks the water while the other two argue about the amount of liquid in the glass.

The term, “negative space” is akin to that old saying because there is always something in the space. It may not be type or color or an image, but the space has purpose and function. How can that be “negative”?

Most definitions of “negative space” are that it is the empty space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used as an artistic effect to enhance or draw attention to the focal subject of an image.

The use of negative space is a key element of artistic composition. It is the glue that holds all of the elements together. It may be vast, or just a few pixels between an overload of elements, but it is always there.

“There is no such thing as negative space. Only shape and counter shape.” – Charles Goslin 

This has been a misnomer in design for generations. No one knows who started it, just like why so many prospective clients all know the line, “this is a great opportunity to have your work seen,” when they want free work from a designer. It just keeps popping up. The problem is, when explaining design decisions, using the term, “negative space” gives off negative and confusing connotations.

 It is a confusing term that should be replaced in our vocabulary as designers, along with other misnomers for design that only we understand. Communication with clients, and the masses.

 

Negative space examples 

Negative space, is, in fact, that illusion between the eye and the brain. You’ve seen the chalice that becomes two faces, and other such optical illusions? Does it have to be black and white? How do colors register on the brain?

 ns.negativespace

The examples above are what most people think of with “negative space.” It’s the use of stark contrasts to reveal a complete or hidden image or message. As Goslin said, “only shape and counter shape.”

ns.negativespacecolor

Even a mix of colors works when the shapes play upon the contrasting colors. It is not an easy thing and the simplicity demands brilliant thinking, and the ability to see quickly how shapes form an image. ©Noma Bar

ns.fedexlogo

The FedEx logo was a brilliant use of a negative shape… or was it just an accident that the type formed, and someone saw the arrow at the meeting of the E and X?

There is, however, more to the building of an optical illusion with those shapes. This is where most of the confusion of negative space arises. Is it so cut and dried? Does it have to be like the assortment of logos above? Does a straight line have to be straight or can it use shapes to give the illusion of it being a straight line?

ns.notnegspace

Some samples from the website of Illustrator Tang Yau Hoong that are entitled, “The art of negative space. An attempt to tell a story through illustration.” Unfortunately, while they are all well-executed pieces of art, with fun, and creative twists, the shapes don’t interact with each other to the point where they can truly be called, “negative space“. What the empty or space shapes do, is draw attention to other shapes and elements. It is a clever use of minimalist design, rather than a use of negative space.

ns.photography

On the website, Photography Mad, the article, “Understanding and Using “Negative Space” in Photography,” the examples shown are NOT negative space. They are beautiful compositions, but it harkens back to the glass being full with water, and air. The space draws attention to the focal point. Negative space can be used effectively in photography, as it can be in illustration, design, and video. In this case, however, the backgrounds are not shapes that define, or work with the objects in the foreground. They are colors and blurs that emphasize another element to be more important and pop against it.

 

Minimalist design

Often minimalist design is confused with negative space, as with the photographs above and Hoong’s illustrations. Minimalist ads have been around for decades. Even some of the greatest painters in history have used minimalist approaches in their portraiture to emphasize the subject figure.

ns.vwads

Volkswagen was known for their minimalist ads, showing just the product, and not their vehicles driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, or lonely roads. The focus was simply on the cars and the space in these print ads drew the eye of the viewer right to the product.

ns.minimalist

Other minimalist ads that use space and simplicity to spotlight their message. It’s easy to tell the difference between negative space, and minimal elements, which are shapes against blank space, as opposed to shapes working against, and in tandem with other shapes. 

 

Why drop the term, “negative space”?

Whenever you see the hilarious examples of odd client statements that dot sites across the web, it usually includes the client throwing out words they believe to be standard design terms that will communicate what they want for their design project.

So, what does “negative space” mean to different people? Obviously different things. The important thing to remember is that when a client sees space in a design, there will no doubt be a request to make a logo bigger, throw in ten pounds of type into the five pound bag, or fill the space because they feel they are not getting their money’s worth if all of the space isn’t used. Even using the term, “minimalist” has its dangers. In the end, every designer must know these rules of design, how and when to break them, and when to just tell the client, “here’s your design,” and smile, then hope it’s not changed.

What are your thoughts about the examples used in this article? Do you have a take on the terms and design executions? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, negative space image via Noma Bar.

  • http://www.blazewebstudio.co.za/ Geoffrey Gordon

    Hey Speider

    Great article on negative space, we all suffer form industry lingo from time to time. Wether negative spacer is a misnomer or not. It really is wonderful to gaze and figure out what you looking at.

    It always brings a smile to ones face, because it looks well… pretty darn awesome.

    • http://speiderschneider.blogspot.com Speider Schneider

      I’m always jealous of the designers who see negative space so easily. It has something to do with the brain switching back and forth and which form you see first. Most people see the positive shapes first.

  • htmljenn

    this is a great article. The photos and images really bring across what you’re talking about. I always think of negative space as being the space in designs that people don’t always see. For example, the FedEx logo – I’ve pointed out that arrow to many many clients when discussing space, and most of them never really saw it until I pointed it out.

    I often wonder what I am not seeing.

    • http://speiderschneider.blogspot.com Speider Schneider

      Some of the best designs using negative space are completely by accident. I’m sure the FedEx logo was the same.

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        I don’t think it can be accidental, the x-height on the lowercase has been shortened and there’s no reason to do that other than to create the arrow.

  • http://www.fasttrackcreations.com/blog Nikhil Malhotra

    Nice article.Love the last para for sure.Relate to it completely:)

    • http://speiderschneider.blogspot.com Speider Schneider

      We all can! ;-)

  • HemanthMalli

    Good post. Brilliant way of utilizing negative space. Very artistic !!

  • herptml5

    I tend to use the term ‘negative space’ for art projects, and it works well as drawing using negative space is basically Art 101. For web design, I use the term ‘white space’ and I explain that the space does not have to be white. It can be any color or even multiple colors in the case of textured designs. If the client doesn’t understand WHY white space is a good thing, I ask if given a choice, would they prefer to live in a house with a hoarder or a house with plenty of open space. A web design with plenty of white space is like the house with an open design, uncluttered and easy on the eyes.