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Designing With Negative Space: Inspiring Examples & Tips

March 2, 2021 · 8 min read

If you are into New Age stuff or are the type who’s perky and upbeat all the time, then you probably believe that everything negative is bad news. And we respect that, believe me, we do.
But if you’re a designer, then you probably know that not all negatives are a bad thing. In fact, graphic designers actually have the power to turn something negative into something positive.
Yup, we’re talking about negative space.

Negative Space 101

Alright, for the sake of those who feel uncomfortable around negativity, you’ll be happy to know that negative space is also known as ‘white space’.
Is that better? Okay, let’s continue.
Note that just because it’s called negative space it’s not necessarily black. Similarly, it’s not always white just because it’s referred to as white space. Negative space or white space is the open or empty space left around any object. Consider it as the breathing room that you leave around every piece of image or text on your design. This dictates how crowded or how light your overall design looks.
Now note that when it comes to negative space, there is no such thing as too little of it or too much of it. It always depends on the end goal of the design project. Negative space can actually contribute to your overall design if you look at it from a whole new perspective. Instead of seeing it as the space that’s left behind once everything is in place, you can actually start looking at it as that space that made all the difference.

How They Did It

Still unable to comprehend how negative space could have such a huge impact? A few examples will help you visualize it. Take a look at how each of these brands made use of negative space in such a creative way, that it suddenly became the most important ingredient in the overall recipe.

The FedEx Logo

FedEX Logo
When it comes to the brilliant use of negative space, FedEx is definitely the most classic example. Upon simple inspection, it looks like a basic blue and red text design that any regular person could probably pull off. But no, look closer. Still don’t see the trick?
Notice that negative space between the ‘E’ and the ‘x’? Yup, that’s not just any white space, that’s actually a white arrow hidden in plain sight.

Alexander Johnson’s Moby Dick Cover

Moby Dick Cover Alexander Johnson’s
You’ve probably heard the classic tale of Moby Dick, an 1851 novel about a whale. You might have even done a few book reports on it as a kid, or have had it read to you just before bedtime.
Seeing that this is one classic piece of literature, Alexander Johnson decided to recreate it with a minimalist aesthetic. He designed a book cover that features a capital letter ‘M’, with the negative space on top appearing as a harpoon and the white space below appearing as the tail of a whale. Brilliant.

The Works of Tang Yau Hoong

Check out more of his work here:
If there’s one artist that takes the use of negative space quite seriously, it’s Tang Yau Hoong. A graphic designer and illustrator living in Malaysia, he has brought a whole new meaning to negative space art.
A bottle of wine that has been tipped over, with the wine flowing freely from it forming a chasm on one side, and a red carpet on the other. A man silently puffing on his pipe, the smoke openly billowing and forming galaxies and constellations above his head. A forest with deer frolicking in its midst, with each treetop expanding upward and forming a city skyline.
These are some of the amazing imagery that Tang Yau Hoong creates, the perfect example of how negative space can be used to create new meanings.

The Guild of Food Writers Logo

The Guild of Food Writers Logo
It’s a bunch of writers, so yes, let’s use a pen’s nib. It’s the perfect way to demonstrate what these people do without having to explain the design. That’s probably what went on inside the designer’s head when he first thought about the visual identity that would represent this group forever.
But then again, this is not just an ordinary group of writers, this is a group of writers who love food.
So what the designers did was use the negative space on that fountain pen to portray a spoon. It was a subtle plot twist, but it’s an amazing inspiration for the creative use of negative space.

The Fiat Campaign

Creatives at Leo Burnett really outdid themselves when they came up with the design for Fiat’s new campaign. Encouraging drivers not to text and drive, the brilliant use of negative space made a huge impact on motorists everywhere.
Using the stark contrast between black and white, the team came up with white letters and used the black negative space to form silhouettes. The letter ‘N’ came with a silhouette of a dog. To reinforce the central message, they added a powerful statement that says, “You either see the letter or the dog. Don’t text and drive.”
Other images they used were a letter ‘F’ and a silhouette of a bus, as well as a letter ‘R’ and the silhouette of a little girl. Now THAT is one positive use of negative space.

Your Turn: Making the Most Out of Negative Space

So how do you make the most out of negative space to make your designs not only clearer, but more interesting?
Here are a few tips:

Embrace the negative space.

A lot of designers become too absorbed in their design that they place a barrier between them and negative space. They learn to hate it and find the need to get rid of it every single time. But if you’re really after the drama and the impact that your overall design could be conveying, you just have to learn how to embrace and integrate that negative space.
Beginners often find this hard, but that’s okay. You’ll get used to it. Having a great amount of negative space does not necessarily mean that you’re lazy or that you lack that spark of creativity. If anything, this actually means that you don’t rely on senseless content just to make a single design look busy. And that, my friend, is the mark of a true artist.

Use negative space as a huge part of the design planning process.

When planning the design, we often focus too much on the things that are going to be in the final piece, and don’t think too much about what’s not going to be in it. In other words, designers sometimes push negative space back as an afterthought. They don’t pay attention to it until they get to the end point.
This is where problems begin.
Think about what you’re going to do with the negative space early on so that you don’t end up wondering whether there’s too much or too little of it. Make it an important and intentional part of the design planning process.

Add some negative space by taking away some of the positive space.

In designs that demand a lot of negative space, designers could end up thinking about how they can add more negative space to an existing image.
Sometimes however, this is not the way to do it. Keep it simple.
Instead of thinking about what to add, how about thinking about what to take away? Thinking about how to minimize the positive space is often easier than thinking about how to widen the negative space. Take our word for it.

It’s not just black or white.

It’s been said before, but there’s a need to say it again. When you think about negative space, remember that it’s not just black or white. It could be any color imaginable. If anything, using other colors for your negative space could actually add more drama to the design.
Take placing a row of bright yellow lemons against a brilliant blue background, for example. Or letting an image of a girl in yellow and blue stand against a shimmering green wall.
Don’t be afraid to use color. If it’s the best way to add drama to the design, why stop yourself from doing it? At the end of the day, the use of negative space will all depend on the designer’s understanding of human nature. You have to learn how to understand how people perceive things visually, and how to play tricks on their eyes so that their interest is piqued.
There are no solid rules to be followed, and it all depends on how bold you want to be.
Lastly, remember that space is not a bad thing in design. If all it takes to convey your message is a single dot in the middle of a vast blank space, then so be it.

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  • Interesting article Igor, it's easier to remember what inspires you when its combined with information that's actually useful. Great tips :) 7 years ago