Negative Space - Joe Vax, Guest Blogger


Welcome to Negative Space. I've been asked to write a column for all of you crafters concerning the fundamental principals of design, so let's dive right in. Whatever projects you’re working on, whatever materials you’re using, the more you understand about what makes good design work, the happier you’ll be with your results. After all, design is the art in arts & crafts.

When I was teaching, the first thing I would tell my students is to start paying attention (really paying attention) to all of the design around you. Everything, all the visual communications we are bombarded with daily, have been designed by someone. And not just graphic design, all design. Products, appliances, cars, clothes, architecture, furniture—it’s all designed. Most of it’s pretty bad, some of it’s pretty good, and a tiny percentage of it is great. Look for stuff that knocks you out and pay attention to the stuff you really dislike. Analyze all of it. It’s not enough to simply react positively or negatively, figure out why you love it or hate it. Ask yourself what the designer was trying to accomplish. Why did they choose that form? Why that color combination? Why that type face? Why so much texture? And of course a question commonly asked by clients, Why’s the damn logo so small?

The good, the bad and the ugly. Would someone tell me what was wrong with the original 1930s design of the Jefferson nickel? The new one is certainly no improvement. The latest incarnation of the five spot is embarrassing when you consider the truly beautiful currency found in other countries.

See what I mean? Gorgeous.

I believe that asking why is much more important than asking how. Whys are about the art, hows are about the craft. Hows are usually specific to the medium, whys are almost always applicable to anything you’re doing. So, start mentally digesting everything you see and building a library of whys. Once you learn to ask all the right whys, then you’ll want to ask: "What the hell were they thinking?"

I think what we’re saying here is obvious.

Next time, we’ll really start getting into some specific design principals,in fact we’ll look at the name of this column, negative space, and see how it relates to positive shapes. Until then, may your form always follow your function.

Lesson Two: Positive and Negative Space

This is the second in a series of posts by guest blogger, Joe Vax. The series is meant to shed light on design principles that readers can use whether they are crafting, arranging a room, or just looking at their world. Joe's first post can be found here. Enjoy.

Space, it may not be the final frontier, but in the arts it may be the most important one. Think about it, in every art form from music to choreography to film, artists concern themselves with the division of space. A comedian has to have great timing, a chef using the space of the plate to present your meal, a director and cinematographer framing a shot, it’s all about space division.

The great Miles Davis once said that the notes you don’t play are more important than the notes you do play. That‘s because the notes you don’t play create the SPACE around the notes you play, and that space defines the nature and importance of the notes we hear.

Now translate that idea to visual forms and you can understand that the space surrounding an object defines the object. If the object itself is positive space, than the space around the object is negative space. Like the notes we don’t play, that negative space can be far more important than the positive shapes they surround. You are experiencing this phenomenon right now. When we read we don’t read the letters, we read the space around the letters (and in letters like a, e, o, b, g, the space inside the letters as well).

Readability is, of course, a utilitarian function, but negative spaces have aesthetic and communicative functions as well. Negative space also creates forms or shapes which can be even more beautiful than the subjects they surround. Also, negative shapes can be crafted to actually deliver information that isn’t in the positive forms.

In this trademark that we designed for the California Pistachio Commission, we used negative space to create the rays of California sunshine. A negative shape is also used for the highlight on the lip of the bottom half of the shell.

Below: The letter mark we designed for Anthony Mar Advisors uses negative space to create the A in AM.

Negative shapes communicate emotions powerfully. The way we divide space can create tension or serenity, trust or fear and it can make the viewer feel large or uncomfortably small. Think about your subject matter and how you want your audience to feel about it.

Same word, same type face, same colors — entirely different messages.

Being a graphic designer, I’m usually working in two dimensions, but people who work in 3D have additional challenges in negative space. Next time you view a large sculpture take a walk around it, the negative space changes from every viewing angle.

In the hands of masters the use of negative space can be a wonder. Negative shapes that are so beautiful they draw you into them, shapes that actually help communicate the meaning of the piece. This is why I love Abstract Expressionism, there is no figurative imagery to get hung up on, only form, line, color, texture and most importantly, the exquisite use of space to communicate the artists message.

Lesson Three - Color

Well, last time I promised we’d talk a little about color. What was I thinking? Talking a little about color is like talking a little about the the universe. There are people who spend their entire lives studying color, it’s too vast a subject to approach in a single column. The use of color is also a very personal aspect of making art, but hey, let’s talk about some basics and I’ll try to give you some insight into how I use color.

Color carries an enormous amount of weight in how we perceive things, it is probably the single biggest factor in our purchasing decisions. Think about that the next time you’re walking down a grocery store aisle, shopping for clothes, or buying a new car. And our choices are literally endless—cold, hot, warm, cool, clean, dirty, heavy, light, hard, soft—it goes on forever. So how do we decide what colors to apply to our projects? Well, what are you trying to say, because color communicates in ways that form alone cannot.

I like surprises, and color can be an excellent way to introduce an element of surprise by avoiding the obvious. In the poster below I avoided the traditional Halloween black and orange to use colors that had significant meaning to me. When I was a kid the Five & Dimes sold wax skeletons filled with colored sugar water. You knew that Halloween was right around the corner when these things would magically appear on the candy counter. You just had to stock up on wax corpses and monster magazines! I’m sure nobody made this connection when they received this poster in the mail but I didn’t care, I told you color choices are personal! Colors are like smells, they are deeply embedded in our memories.

In this Halloween self promotion poster, the color is based on childhood memories of translucent wax skeletons filled with colored sugar water.

When considering color I always try to remind myself to keep it simple, a little color can go a long way. That doesn’t mean you need to be scared of it, but think about how different colors relate to each other. Some colors compliment each other and other combinations will create foils to one another. Some tend to move back in space while others come forward. Look and analyze. I love to create foils with colors that contrast each other. It’s a great way to force a viewers attention to the central concept of the piece. Remember that the contrast I’m speaking about is not only contrast in value (light to dark), but also contrast in hue (cool to warm, or neutral to dynamic).

The cool green leaves and blue cuff create a great foil for the red glove, the centerpiece of this spread.

Lots of color here but the viewers attention is forced to the white initial caps, AACJO.

I also like to prioritize color, even in a piece that uses a lot of color I try to present one color that the viewer will remember as the main color of the piece. In my work that singular memorable color is often white, black or grey (negative space).

Even though this open studio announcement has a lot of color it will be perceived as a black postcard.

The piece above is based on the ‘OPEN’ signs we see everyday in shop windows. They are almost always bright orange letters on a black background, so we chose paintings from the artists that used a lot of orange to drop into the widows created by the letters.

As I’m sure you know, colors can be masculine or feminine, they can shout or whisper, they can seduce or warn, and remember that colors carry many different meanings to different cultures and religions. I hope I’ve given you some ideas to think about as you explore the endless world of color. Until next time, may your form always follow your function.

Photo of Joe Vax: Will Mosgrove


  1. Nice! A lot of good info in a small amount of space. Enjoyed looking at the work, as well. I'm going to pass this along to others

  2. Thanks Becca! I've passed your nice comment on to Joe.

  3. The colour and negative space pieces are really good takes on two of the design basics that too many often overlook. I also like the first piece about looking around for examples of great design and figuring out why something works, or doesn't, and then applying those lessons to one's own design. Thanks to Joe for these reminders.

  4. I really enjoyed reading these articles; gave me some ideas to consider when my mind seems to blank out and nothing creative comes out but statistics and boring research stuff :)

    I really like the idea of using traditional colors in other ways, like the OPEN sign. That is way cool.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Vera! I'll pass it on to Joe.

  6. The colour and negative space pieces are really good takes on two of the design basics that too many often overlook. I also like the first piece about looking around for examples of great design and figuring out why something works, or doesn't, and then applying those lessons to one's own design. Thanks to Joe for these reminders.

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