Negative Space in Design: What It Is and Why It Matters
Learn about positive and negative space and how they are used in design, photography, typography, and other types of art.
What Is Negative Space?
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the design world, you will likely have come across the term negative space by now. But just what is negative space? A depressing place? Some kind of parallel universe where everything is back-to-front?
In fact, negative space is simply the areas between and around objects. Areas that - if we notice them at all - we tend to think of as empty.
But nothing is ever truly empty. And in reality negative space is every bit as important to designers as the “positive” forms we usually consider to be the real focus of our work. So if we want to up our game as designers, we need to train ourselves to become more attuned to negative space; not only in design, but in the world around us.
In this article we look at exactly what is meant by the term negative space in design, and consider how we can better employ it to our advantage. Firstly, by simply learning to see it more clearly. And then by making good use of negative space as a central element of our design practice.
Negative Space Definition
Before we go any further, though, it would be good to get a clearer idea of exactly what is meant by the term negative space. And probably the clearest definition of negative space is simply that it is the space between things; the empty or blank areas, or the “holes” where the page shows through between the main design elements. For this reason negative space in design is often also referred to as “white space.”
Negative Space and Positive Space
What should be clear from the above definition of negative space is that, on its own, negative space is nothing; it exists only in relation to positive space. You can only have a background if there is a foreground. You only get a hole because there is a form. You only see a gap because there are distinct objects.
But in actual fact this relationship works both ways, and in order to exist, positive space also needs negative space. As an example, think of the yin and yang symbol; remove one half of the design, and the other disappears too. Positive space is defined by negative space, and vice versa.
But how do we know which space is positive and which is negative?
Perception of Positive Forms
Across cultures, humans tend to perceive colors in a fairly consistent order; with dark colors on a light background standing out first, followed by bright colors such as red and yellow. Add to this the fact that over many centuries we have become accustomed to viewing dark ink on light-colored paper or parchment, and it can be difficult for us to shake off the idea that dark is positive and light is negative. In reality though, positive and negative are not fixed qualities, but entirely interchangeable ones. So what is negative space in one context may become positive space in another.
That being the case, the easiest way to see whether negative space space is working for you - and to understand the importance of negative space in design more generally - is to invert positive and negative elements; making “empty” areas black, and turning dark objects white.
Try it! Take a simple design and invert it in Photoshop or InDesign and you’ll immediately see if the previously negative areas also work as positive forms.
Negative Space Examples In Art History
Possibly the most famous example of negative space is Rubin’s vase; a simple black and white drawing that, depending on the viewer’s point of view, either shows two faces in profile or an ornamental vase. Although Rubin was a psychologist rather than an artist, he had likely discovered the design in earlier European art.
The fact is, though, that negative space is an integral part of all visual art; contemporary or traditional, and regardless of whether it originates from Africa, Oceania, Europe, or the Americas. However, negative space has an especially long and well-developed history within Asian art in particular. Indeed, everyone from Buddhist scholars to contemporary psychologists has noted that East Asian cultures often emphasize the relationships between things just as much as the things in themselves.
This is certainly true of the writing systems of East Asia, where a skilled calligrapher is not merely someone who has mastered the strokes of the characters, but just as equally their relationship to one another and the space around them. It’s the same with much traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean painting, where positive objects are often merely “suggested” by highly skillful and minimalist brushstrokes, with negative space doing a lot of the heavier depictive work.
In contrast, North Americans and Europeans have traditionally tended to focus on specific objects rather than on the bigger picture. However, over the last couple of centuries, East Asian philosophy and design principles have had a major influence upon the development of European and American art. Japanese approaches to design in particular were highly influential on Western Modernism, and clever use of negative space can be found everywhere from the minimalist architectural works of Mies van der Rohe to the evolving repeat-patterns of M.C. Escher.
Negative Space in Design
If you’ve checked out some of the negative space examples mentioned above, hopefully by now you’ve gained a clear understanding of what negative space is and how it works within art more generally. But what about negative space in design? What can it do for you as a designer?
Negative Space in Graphic Design…
Just as it would be difficult to appreciate music if it wasn’t for silence, negative space in graphic design provides the eye with a place to “rest” between important information, while also creating rhythm and structure. Gutters, margins, and the space between columns are all examples of negative space within a graphic design context. Without these elements the discipline would be a lot less effective as a means of visual communication.
Another important example of negative space in graphic design can be found in the discipline of typography. As with calligraphy, good typography is not only about positive forms, but also the spaces between them. For example, a mixture of upper and lower case is much easier to read than ALL CAPS, precisely due to the variation in negative space between letters.
…and In Logo Design
Negative space is also a key consideration in logo design. And when negative space is used creatively here, it can double the complexity of the message transmitted, yet without the logo becoming more complicated. This can be achieved by creating recognizable forms not only in positive areas, but also in negative parts of the logo too; such as between letters. Some obvious examples of this are the logo of FedEx with its hidden arrow, and that of the book publisher Routledge, which makes use of positive and negative faces to form the letter R.
Negative Space Web Design
When it comes to web design, negative space also has an important role to play; both in allowing a web page to “breathe,” and in helping to draw greater attention to those elements included on the page. Certainly too much information crammed onto a single page will be hard to take in; and likely also ugly. Instead, negative space web design can help to create a hierarchy of information so that not all elements compete for the viewer’s attention at the same time.
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Negative Space in Photography
Hopefully it’s already become obvious to you how you might apply the principles of negative space to your own design work. Right now, though, you might be wondering precisely what is negative space in photography, and, perhaps more importantly, what’s it got to do with you as a designer.
Negative space in photography doesn’t differ markedly from negative space in other mediums. To be sure, the same principle applies of giving equal consideration to the “background” as to the main subject.
Yet unlike designers, photographers don’t start with a blank page. Instead negative space in photography is more likely to take the form of the sky, a wall, a sidewalk, a lawn, a forest, a lake - or indeed any other large expanse of relatively uniform color or texture that a photographer might encounter in the world.
A photographer who is attuned to using negative space in their compositions will easily be able to invert “positive” and “negative” areas of a scene in their mind before taking a picture. For example, rather than photographing an aircraft against the sky, a photographer might see a plane-shaped hole in a blue rectangle. Working in this way can lead to some very strong, graphic compositions.
But why is it important that you as a graphic designer understand how negative space works in photography? Well, aside from the fact that today we are all photographers to a certain degree, most designers also use photography in their work. And photography that makes creative use of negative space can be a real asset to a design project; providing plenty of room to place typography and other graphic elements over the images, without the risk of things becoming cluttered.
This can be particularly valuable for web designers, who may be briefed to include lots of photographic imagery in a project, but not want to compromise aesthetics by overloading the page. In short, when sourcing images or commissioning a photographer for a design project, be sure to give equal consideration to negative space in photography as you would to other design elements.
Learning to See In Negative
However, there’s also another reason why you should learn to see things like a photographer. Working effectively with negative space means giving as much consideration to negative forms as to positive ones. Or, better still, ceasing to make a distinction between positive and negative altogether, and instead simply making sure that all elements of any design project are well balanced and working in harmony with one another.
But in order to make good use of negative space in design, you really need to train yourself to see the negative just as much as the positive. Indeed, one of the reasons we included the information above about negative space in photography is precisely because it illustrates a way in which anyone can learn to see elements in the world - from a forest to a blank sheet of paper - as negative space. And once we’ve begun to notice the negative forms around us, with a little imagination these can easily be inverted into positive ones.
Graphic design is not just about aesthetics, but also the clear communication of information. The use of negative space in graphic design can be a powerful creative tool, helping to more effectively convey a message.
But in order to successfully employ negative space in design, we need to become accustomed to noticing negative space wherever it occurs in the world. One of the best ways of achieving this is to think like a photographer. You don’t even need a camera to do it; simply look around you as you go about your daily life, and try to identify which elements are negative and which are positive. Now imagine these elements inverted, so you no longer see a door in a wall, but a wall-shaped object around a rectangular hole. Training yourself to view the world in this way will make it easier to effectively use negative space in your work as a designer.