Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Design Guy, Episode 38, Adopt a Negative Attitude

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Today we'll discuss why, sometimes, you've got to get negative to be positive. No, we're not talking creative mood swings here, or how to channel your anger into your work, or anything like that. We're talking about "negative space." And how giving attention to the negative space can strengthen our design compositions.

Okay, so what exactly is "negative space"?

Well, first of all, negative space is kind of an unfortunate phrase because the word "negative" is such a downer, but in the context of art and design, it is simply the opposite of positive space. Now, of course, that's not so helpful since we haven't defined positive space, either, so let's start there...

Positive space is the shape of your foreground elements. If, say, you're looking at an illustration of a hippopatomus performing a high-wire act, carrying an umbrella - all the elements I've just described - the hippo, the umbrella, the high wire, make up the foreground elements. Taken together, their collective silhoutte defines the positive space. On the other hand, the space that surrounds her is the negative space (and yes, the hippo is a girl). So, if you were to take a marker and color in everything but the hippo, the high-wire and umbrella, you will have defined the negative space.

Here's another example, drawn from Betty Edward's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain."(1) Edwards reminds us of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, where Bugs Bunny reacts to something an runs. Maybe it was that episode in the mad scientist's castle with that big, orange haired monster wearing tennis shoes. Anyway, he panics and he runs, slamming right through a door, leaving a Bugs Bunny shaped hole behind. And it's that hole in the door that we want to remember. Because, in that hole, we see the exact shape of Bugs Bunny - his head and ears, his arms and legs, all perfectly circumscribed. So, that hole represents the positive shape, the positive space of Bugs. And it's what's left behind of the door that is the negative space, because the remaining part of the door captured the negative shape surrounding Bugs Bunny. I like this example because the the door put us in mind of our canvas or page which is almost always a rectangle of some sort. And with the positive space extracted (i.e., the shape of Bugs Bunny), what we've got left is our negative space.

If you've logged as many hours as I have watching Chuck Jones cartoons, then this example is great and visual, and you'll never forget how to describe negative space.

I mentioned this came out of Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and if you're anything like me, somewhat frustrated with your drawing abilities, you'll want to grab this title for your library because it can really help you, really help you translate what you see to the page. It's also chock full of dramatic before and after examples of her students' work, which start out as just, totally juvenile looking stuff (I mean, stuff that looks like third-grade art class), but that progress, in some cases, to some pretty mature work.

And not to digress too far on this subject of drawing, I was very encouraged once reading an interview with designer, Paula Scher. (2) If you don't know who she is, Paula Scher is an acclaimed designer with a very distinctive typographic style. She recounted about how she drew the honest conclusion that she couldn't draw all that well, but that she loved type, and focused on how to compose type and image together in innovative ways. And now, artistically challenged Paula Scher is at the top of her field. So, just a quick anecdote to encourage some of you out there. Designers can feel very insecure about their work and their abilities, and it helps to hear things like that now and then.

Back to negative space...

Edwards, like many art teachers, instructs her students to draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. Instead of focusing on a positive element, a model's arm, for example, they're told to draw the shapes around the arm. And they often get more accurate results when they do so because they're building on those shapes. This may also have something to do with right brain / left brain theory, the way our minds switch modes, that accounts for this, but nevertheless it really does work. So, for example, if you were to draw a picture of someone standing with their hands on their hips, rather than draw the positive shapes of their arms, you might start with the triangular shapes that occur BETWEEN the arms and the torso. You're still drawing the arm, but your focus is indirect.

Edwards reports that her students experience a kind of ephiphany after being introduced to negative space, because they see the world differently. And because the right brain is associated with creativity, and that blissed out, feeling of euphoria we get when we're in that mode, her students report that the world is prettier and more interesting to them as they look at it anew. And best of all, they get dramatically better results in their drawing.

So, how does this help us as designers? How is this practical?

When we scrutinize negative space, and take it into account, it helps us make decisions. It helps us diagnose problems. It helps us decide where to put elements on a page. And especially when we're in that stage when we're shifting things around, trying to find the best spot for your essential elements, paying attention to the negative shapes can help greatly.

I know that I frequently find myself in a restless place when I'm working, moving things all over the page, and scaling things up, scaling them down. Balancing things various ways. Or I may have worked out this great typographic solution for a headline, pairing large and small type together, and I really like it, but then I'm hating the way it interacts with the other elements on the page, and so I discard the arrangement for some other solution. And a lot of what drives this unrest that we experience is the negative space. We're not happy with the ways we're shaping the negative space. And remember, you're always sculpting white space on the page. We'll talk about that more directly another time, but we want to keep that in mind. Every movement, every action, has an equal and opposite reaction, and that principle certainly applies to our dealings with positive and negative space. Often this process is subconcious and intuitive, but we're restless just the same, because isn't working and we're troubled by it. So, a graphic designer who remembers to think beyond the positive elements on the page, to pay conscious attention to the negative shapes he or she is creating, stands a better chance of solving the compositional problem.

By the way, this is a universal experience for designers. Paul Rand (3) did a famous piece involving an abacus. It was that act of shifting the beads of an abacus around until we're satisfied stands as his metaphor for the design process.

Negative space becomes especially important and interesting when we use it to form shapes that are just as significant, perhaps moreso, than the positive elements. This act of "bringing the background into the foreground" with meaningful negative shapes can be seen in many corporate logos, as I've mentioned a number of times before. So, keep your eyes peeled for those, they're a great source of instruction to designers.

Well, I'm going to leave it right there for now, although there's much more we can say about this subject. The problems of white space, issues like trapped white space, for example. But, we'll have to hit such issues at a later time. For now, I want to thank you very much for listening. And I'll ask that if you're enjoying the show, please consider taking a moment to leave a descriptive review at iTunes, which will help the show's rankings and encourage others to subscribe.

And as always, you can get a transcript at, music is by By the way, I've added my twitter link at, sotake . Well, I thank you again, and I hope to have you back next time.