When you’re designing — whether it’s a logo, infographic, pamphlet, or website — it’s natural to spend a lot of time thinking about the flashiest parts of your work. You know, those design elements you’ve worked hard to create from scratch and you hope will catch people’s eyeballs.
But one of the most important aspects of design isn’t just creating elements that will impress, but what you do around them. In other words, negative (or white) space. It may seem boring at first to spend a lot of time thinking about the empty spaces around what you’re creating, but one can’t be effective without the other. Studies have shown that negative space can increase comprehension by 20% and comprehension is, after all, what your design should aspire to. That’s why it’s an important design step to master.
Here are a few conceptual tips to help you maximize negative space and maximize your design work.
1. Learn to Accept and Love Negative Space
It can be difficult — especially for beginners — to accept that negative space is OK. There’s the temptation to think that leaving any space empty conveys laziness or a lack of creativity. But ignoring negative space often results in design work that is cluttered and overwhelming. Less, as the saying goes, is more.
So, learn to stop worrying and love the negative space. A mastery of it distinguishes the OK designers from the great ones.
2. Make Negative Space a Priority Early in Your Process
The most important rule about using negative space? Don’t treat it like an afterthought.
When you’re sitting down for the first time to start brainstorming and conceptualizing your design, you should already be thinking about negative space. Even if you’re not planning to use it as a major part of your work — say, like VW’s famous “Think Small” ad — it’s vital to treat negative space like it’s as significant as any other design element. Because it is.
3. Know Your Gestalt Psychology
Don’t worry, you don’t have to take Psych 101. The basics of Gestalt psychology are simple: as human beings, we naturally seek out order in the world. That means when we look at an image, we inherently look for the whole first, then the individual parts. Why is that important to know for negative space? Because good design should anticipate how the human brain and eyes will process an image. If you understand that people will see your design initially as a whole, it will make you think more deeply about how to ensure all its elements — including negative space — work together harmoniously.
4. Make Sure You Know What You Want to Accomplish
Negative space should never be something that just happens in your design, or that you insert for the sake of it. You need to give it thought, just like you would any other design element.
Ask yourself, “What do I want the negative space to accomplish?” Because there’s a lot it can do. It can separate visual elements. It can draw the eye to something, or it can send the eye elsewhere. It can create a sense of movement within your design. It can even create optical illusions.
When you know what you want your negative space to do, it won’t just make it easier to execute. It’ll make it more effective.
5. If You Need More Negative Space, Take Away the Positive Space
If you’re struggling to integrate more negative space into your design, try to re-frame your thinking. Instead of asking, “How can I add more negative space?” ask, “What can I take away from the positive space?” Take a hard, honest look at your design and think about which elements can be reduced or pulled back to create more space. Chances are you’ll start to see areas you can take away. If you do, you’ll find the additional negative space you’ll need to boost your overall design.
6. Negative Space Doesn’t Have to Be White
Negative space is also known as “white space,” and sure enough, it’s stereotypically just that: white. It doesn’t have to be though. While white is an effective color for adding negative space, it can really be any color. Negative space just refers to a part of the design that’s not occupied by an active design element. So don’t be afraid to try other colors.
7. Be Sure to Consider Both Passive and Active Negative Space
It’s worth pointing out that there are two different kinds of negative space to consider incorporating into your work. There’s passive negative space, which includes things like margins and the spacing between letters, words, or lines. Then there’s active negative space, which is more about designing to guide a viewer’s eye through your overall work. Both are central to know, and both contribute to the greater whole. So don’t think the space between words doesn’t matter. It does.
8. Trust Your Instincts
For all the tips we’ve offered above, it’s worth noting that no rules will work universally, all the time. Every design will have different needs, and you’ll most likely never get it right immediately. When working with negative design, it’s all about trial, error, and listening to your gut. You adjust and look, adjust and look. Eventually you’ll get there.