Learn why negative space works in design and photography, and pick up a few tips for using it in your own creative content.
As humans and as artists, we often think of empty space as something we need to avoid—we constantly feel the need to fill in the blanks and emptiness as if it’s something displeasing.
However, negative space is one of the most crucial aspects of design: When we embrace the use of space in a design or a photography piece, it allows us to seamlessly create visual hierarchy.
By creating gaps, we ensure a viewer can digest the information in the way we want to present it.
What Is Negative Space in Graphic Design and Photography
In design and photography, negative space (often referred to as “empty space” or “white space“) encompasses the use of “blank” space and has the power to either elevate or undermine a composition.
Negative space includes the space not only around your focus object(s) but also the layout between and inside them—it essentially acts as a breathing space for the viewer’s eyes.
The Value of Negative Space
Before we talk about what negative space brings to the table, let’s quickly touch on its inverse: positive space. Positive space in a design is the main subject or areas of interest we want to direct our observer’s attention to—the items or people that are the focus of the composition.
And, that’s what makes negative space so important—it makes the positive space more visible. After all, there can be no contrasting vividness or dynamic focal point without surrounding neutrality to draw the eye there in the first place.
Essentially, negative space allows us as designers to control our viewers’ visual concentration and direct them to the important information we want them to absorb first.
Negative space is an important tool for defining the outline of an object, create proportion, and strike equanimity between multiple shapes, textures, texts, and colors. It allows us to harness symbolism and choose the lasting impression our art or design will have on its viewing audience.
Designers can create and shape positive space using negative space. By interlocking various negative shapes and texts, a designer can carve out beautiful eye-catching positive space visuals.
This results in memorable centerpieces, logos, illustrations, and even information.
Furthermore, negative space helps prevent the viewer from being overwhelmed by a design. Cramming as much visual information as possible into a piece at once (particularly with graphics) may seem like a good idea, but (unless chosen for stylistic reasons) how is your viewer to know where to look first? Negative space acts as an airy buffer between elements, preventing distraction and overload.
The advantages of applying negative space in all forms of design include:
- Easing the bonds between object elements
- Preventing a cluttered design or photo
- Adding style and elegance
- Improving the flow of a piece of content
- Allowing the eye to comfortably scan a design
- Creating easier legibility and readability
- Building an aesthetic/mood
- Contrasting and incorporating balance
Negative Space and Common Misconceptions
Something important to remember regarding negative space is a common misconception that negative space has to be hollow, plain, or colorless. Negative space—or white space—doesn’t have to be white. It can include any color, texture, image, or even pattern, as long as it works to highlight positive space.
For example, a designer can use shapes in negative space to frame positive space text, subjects, or symbols they want the viewer to read and remember.
In photography, we can also use this negative space technique to clearly shift the observer’s focus to a main subject in the positive space. Black and white versus a color contrast is an easy, eye-catching way to do this.
Pick a subject in your photo frame that you want to highlight—it could be a person, an object, even a shadow. When editing the photo, opt to keep the color of the main subject (or even up its intensity) while making the negative space (the environment around said subject) black and white, or some other kind of neutral tone.
This way, the negative space is natural and interesting, all without boring the viewer with a plain white or color block background.
You can also play with texture in the prop process during a photoshoot—or post-shoot editing—for a similar negative space effect.
Tips for Incorporating Negative Space into Imagery and Design
Now that you have a clear understanding of what negative space is and why it truly is the core of any great design or image, let’s learn how to effectively start incorporating negative space arrangements into your designs or photography.
Here are some interesting and popular negative space concepts and how to get started with negative space for beginners. These strategies apply to most types of creative works from photography to graphic and web design.
1. Implementing Visual Hierarchy
Implementing visual hierarchy is a nice way to easily create positive and negative space balance. Visual hierarchy in design is when you order your design elements based on importance. First, add the important information or visuals, and then secondary content.
When designing or taking a picture, ask yourself about the flow:
- Where will a viewer’s eyes naturally fall?
- Where is the second place the eyes will go?
- Where will the eyes go at the end?
- And, most importantly, where do I want the viewer’s eyes to go?
Imagining or researching the flow will indicate where elements should be placed based on their importance and help you prioritize the appeal—or lack thereof—of each element, according to what you want your viewer to experience when viewing your design or image.
Guide your viewer with your choices rather than letting their eyes bounce around your design.
Remembering the principle of visual hierarchy when designing will help you with deciding where to apply negative space and producing a hierarchy of information in order to lead viewers or potential customers down the right path.
2. Balance the Color Palette
As we talked about earlier, negative space doesn’t mean you’re restricted to using plain white backgrounds or borders. Actually, a good design should be able to balance color in the negative space and manipulate in order to portray a story, message, or symbol.
However, this doesn’t mean you should go overboard with using colors in the negative space. Remember, you don’t want your image or design to feel cluttered or unfocused. The negative space is there to compliment the positive space, not to draw attention away from it.
A good rule of thumb is to leverage two or three colors in your negative space. This can be in the form of having one color as the background and one or two other colors in shapes over that background.
Don’t be afraid to play with unique color combinations, just as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the color—or lack thereof—in the positive space.
One of the most popular uses of negative space (especially in photography) is framing. Simplistic yet effective, negative space framing is useful whether you’re creating a poster, logo, or snapping a photo.
Framing is a core design principle that many designers use to highlight a focal point.
Negative spacing in visual framing is usually related to minimalist aesthetics and typically has the negative space surrounding a main subject. It’s used to not only emphasize the focal point but also to accentuate the empty space around the main object.
It guides the viewer to focus on the central subject by having them clearly absorb the emptiness surrounding it, further defining the motif.
4. Layer Elements and Negative Space
When working with negative space, don’t be afraid to push the limits of elements, light, textures, and layers to create unique designs.
Use the technique of “overlapping” to form clever negative space in a design. As you overlap, consider two (or more) items, icons, objects, or shapes to employ. Assign one subject as positive space and the other as negative space. Have one object or shape work as negative space and overlap the other “positive space” object.
This can sometimes create an almost cutout effect, and can be a particularly fun and practical choice to utilize for designs or brands that have multiple missions or purposes. Or that just want to put a bit of clever play into their visual representation.
Another way to layer negative space is by using shadows. Strategically highlighting shadows is an interesting way of using negative space in a design or image by adding more visual interest.
You can do this in photography by playing with lighting in front of your subject. One side of the potential image should be well lit, and the other side should be darker in order to create an exaggerated shadow around your subject.
Creating negative space shadow effects for graphic design essentially works in the same way. Instead of setting up lighting, mentally picture your idea for a logo or illustration as a 3D object.
Use a photographic reference to give you a picture of where the shadow would drop on your subject if it were a tangible object.
When designing your art, use the light portion as the positive space and the darkened portion as the negative space. Or vice versa. Contrasting shadow in the negative space makes a main subject appear more vivid and dynamic in the positive.
Our last shadow layering strategy is using opacity to form balanced and creative negative space.
Different degrees of opacity can make an object look heavy or light and present an order of dominance. Overlapping transparent components will create a dynamic composition that helps you control perspective and space, and form seamless barriers between positive and negative space.
5. Negative Space in Lettering
Negative space letters is a clever way to get creative, especially when designing an innovative logo or symbol.
With lettering, your positive space and subject are the letters themselves. This usually means the negative space around the letters gets overlooked. But, you can actually make the negative space around the letters flourish by finding interesting ways to interpret the space in relation to the meaning of the letters.
Let’s Embrace Negative Space
Negative space may sound, well, negative. However, as we now know, it’s anything but when it comes to design and photography! It is the core of any high-quality and well-planned image or graphic design piece.
Negative space adds enhanced visual navigability and prevents elements from becoming overwhelmingly busy. Moreover, harnessing negative space in design or image forms compelling visual content and gives you control of where your audience’s attention should linger and be directed.
Now that you have an idea of what negative space is and how you can effectively incorporate it into your imagery and design, use the incredible power of negative space to create visuals that are out of this world creative, practical, and purposeful.
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