Negative Space - Guest Blogger Joe Vax

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, designing a logo, 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.

Next time we’ll talk a little about color. Once again, may your form always follow your function.

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