How Thoughtful Negative Space Design Works
  by:  |  Sep 9, 2016

The idea of how negative space design works is fairly simple, but it’s something that eludes even experienced artists and designers. Negative space, (or white space as it’s sometimes known) isn’t just a blank area waiting to be filled. It’s an important aspect of a design that allows other elements to exist and have a purpose.

Negative space gives a place for eyes to rest.

The negative space between each element makes each part easier to understand. This is important for images, but nowhere is this more critical than for text. Text should flow easily from word to word. Consider the side-by-side examples below. The text used is H. Rackham’s 1914 translation of Cicero’s popular Lorem Ipsum.

negative space text

The same font and font sizes are used. The main differences are the line spacing and bolding in the first example. The example on the right is much easier to read. This is despite it being thinner and less “in your face” compared to the example on the left.

This is the same reason why you want to choose fonts based on how easy they are to read at an expected distance.

Negative space gives context to other elements.

In this example, Target’s logo appears not as an object, but as the negative space. This allows them to keep their brand in front of the reader while also using it as a clever device to neatly separate the images and text in this annual report.
Target example negative space


Negative space can also serve as a signal that one part of design is different from the others. This way separate components of a print design can each form a specific message, if needed. Conversely, changing the proportions of negative space can also serve to do the opposite, melding different parts into a cohesive whole.

Neither approach is better than the other. What is important is that any such changes should be considered and understood, rather than accidental.

Important details ‘pop’ when negative space design is used correctly.

You can use negative space to highlight a call-to-action, or a specific image or detail you want your audience to look at. This isn’t just a principle of graphic design either. Product photography uses many of these same ideas to direct our attention to a specific part of an image.

Liquor negative space


Negative space does not always mean minimalist. In this clever concept, negative space design works to show off the contents of the bottle, as well as the skull design on the opposite side. The brand name also immediately jumps out at the customer, thanks to the white space around it. The packaging itself also uses negative space to show off the product in its entirety. The whole set uses a white backdrop… Yet another effective use of negative space.

Interesting visual textures are made possible by negative space.

This is especially important for minimalist design, as the designer will have fewer elements to work with. The space itself could give a different look or meaning, and not just serve to frame other objects in the design.

negative space dog


negative space deer


In the first example, negative space highlights just how orange the dog is. In the second example, it frames the landscape to show off the deer. These shades and textures wouldn’t be as appreciated without negative space.

Negative space design affects branding.

This is quite clear when you look at logos of brands often considered to be reputable.

global brands negative space design


This might be because of the need for designs to display properly across different channels, including mobile.

When designing print materials, resist the temptation to include everything you can think of on any single medium. Reconsider stuffing your entire message into one business card or door hanger. Instead, use different materials and design each according to their strengths and expected use.

  • Posters and vinyl banners need more attention paid to their negative space. This is because of usual viewing distances associated with these materials.
  • Business cards also need more attention, given the very limited amount of space to work with. This is despite closer proximity in usage than either posters or banners.
  • Brochures may play around with using less negative space on inside sections.

Understanding negative space design can impact the rate of return for your print materials. It can influence how audiences perceive you, and the types of promotional materials you may want.

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