Designers often view negative space (or “white space”) as a sign of an incomplete design, or space that needs to be filled with… something. Your simple design work can look stellar already, but if you notice a substantial amount of empty space left, you may be compelled to put in peripheral embellishments that don’t really enhance the design. While the end result may seem like a more complete or thorough job, the reality is that those last-minute additions to the design are often purely there to take up space.
Although negative space is inherently empty, it can strengthen a sense of simplicity in your design, and it even afford the opportunity for some creative, clever design ideas (we’ll get to some of those later in the article). Believe it or not, a design that has a large amount of “white space” can be a favorite for clients and a source of pride for a designer. Don’t be a pessimist and view your negative space designs as “half-empty”; the use of the white space itself can be much more effective than filling it with minutia.
I’ll admit that I don’t use negative space as effectively as I could, or as often as I should, and perhaps you don’t either. To fully understand it, let’s start with the definition. Negative space (or white space) is the empty space in between the design elements of your composition. Whether you are creating a logo, designing a flyer, or assembling a website, negative space is essential to your design. Negative space or white space (I’ll be using them interchangeably) helps create a harmonious balance within your project and helps prevent elements from looking too cluttered. The main reason that a person will avoid negative space is because they don’t know how to utilize it. Below, I have provided some tips to consider (and some examples to admire) in order for you to embrace the positivity of negative space.
Planning your negative space is important, especially if you’re like me and you’d rather just jump right in and let inspiration hit you when the time is right. Though planning uses up time that we could spend designing, it is completely necessary if you want to create a design with effective white space. Whether you are sketching out ideas the traditional way or the digital way, you’ll want to have some pre-planned idea of what you want to create. Focus on the placement of each element. Assign a square or rectangle to act as placeholders for each design element instead of drawing everything out. Even if you decide not to stick to the placement, you are able to see how much space you will be taking up before you do any actual designing.
When mapping out your placement, try to arrange the design elements in a cohesive manner. Placement by size is always a great idea, and it helps prevent clutter and keeps certain elements from throwing off your balance by taking up too much space. Refrain from filling all your white space with information, logos and, designs, no matter how tempting it may be. Make sure to give each element some breathing room so that the viewer can take everything in at their leisure. Remember, if you are designing for a product, give it the centermost placement as it should be the focal point of your project.
Remember the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method? Well it applies perfectly to the design world as well. Minimalistic designs have become increasingly popular over the years, and much of it has to do with the clarity that comes with simple designs. Minimalistic designs utilize negative space to the fullest and are often preferred when it comes to web designs and logos.
A great way to keep your design minimal and utilize that wonderful white space is to ask yourself which elements of your design are unnecessary. Look over the design and decide what can be thrown out, cut down, or replaced. Doing this will not only significantly reduce the space you would typically use up, but it will also keep your design simple, clear, and friendly. Consider doing the same for the design assets that you use; if you don’t need fancy artwork or highly detailed textures, then don’t integrate them into your work. You can make up for the absence of intricate details by using a colorful background.
Negative space is a great element to use as a separator, because it automatically creates balance within your design. As I stated earlier, when it comes to planning, you will want to give your elements some breathing room. Regardless of whether your design utilizes a colorful background or not, white space will easily separate unrelated information or graphics. It doesn’t just act as a separator; it also emphasizes the padded elements of your design and makes them stand out from the background.
Size is probably the easiest facet of negative space to master. Rather than just accepting the size of each element as they arrive in your design, make conscious decisions about how big or small each element could be, and how much white space should be employed. Elements don’t always have to be equally sized or enjoy equal amounts of white space, but any of these asymmetries or imbalances should be thoughtfully and intentionally chosen. Equally-sized, equally-spaced elements can convey strength and stillness, while inequalities in white space or size can often convey motion or energy.
White Space Examples
Below are three remarkable uses of negative space. Despite being just a few simple shapes, these logos are clever, thoughtful, and don’t require any embellishment.
This logo (by Astuteo) has a rare combination of simplicity and cleverness. Note that the plumber is holding a plunger, which is comprised entirely out of white space.
The Black Cat logo (by Peter Vasvari) offers another creative use of white space (or, in this case, black space). Note the implied cat in the background identified by his eyes.
The elefont logo above (by Logomotive) presents a seemingly-simple lowercase “e”, but a closer look shows an elephant’s trunk made out of negative space, which reiterates the wordplay within their brand.
No matter how badly you want to just fill up the entire space allotted for your design try hard not to do it. Negative space isn’t negative in the least, and it can make your designs look a lot more professional and thoughtful. But, make sure to use it carefully; too much space can leave your design looking boring and make you appear like a lazy and uncreative designer. With the endless advantages of using negative space effectively (easy readability, more sophisticated designs, positive reception, improved appeal), you should hopefully stop avoiding negative space and embrace it head on. Hopefully I’ve been able to quell your fears about negative space in your designs and you are on your way to creating some stellar design projects.
Do you have any impressive uses of negative space to share? Do you find that thoughtful use of white space can yield better results than just filling the canvas?
Gabrielle is a freelance graphic designer, animator, photographer and filmmaker who has taken on various projects including creating logos for clients, animating commercials for film festivals, working as a character and background designer and animating music videos for an international music artist.