Negative & Postive Space

About Negative & Positive Space

Negative/Positive space can be a dominate aspect of good design. When handled correctly it can turn an average design into a “Wow” piece!

Negative space can be an outstanding tool in creating visual excitement because it doesn’t rely on the subject matter. When people first become involved in the visual arts the subject matter (positive space) is often seen as the most important part of a composition. Sometimes this is taken to such an extent that the artist will completely omit the background to avoid resolving the negative space of the composition.

When working with negative space carefully consider the shape (square, rectangle, etc.) of the picture plane as well as the silhouettes of the positive space. Worked simultaneously the negative and positive spaces become integrated and critical in creating compositional tension or harmony.

negative positive space

Negative / Positive space has a shared edge. The edge is the place where two things meet (for example, where the sky meets the ground). The edge or line of separation is between two shapes or space and shape.

Three Types of Negative / Positive Space

The three types of negative/positive spaces are clearly defined, integrated, and ambiguous.

Please note that the term clearly defined is one I use. I find it easier to clarify the differences between the different types of negative/positive spaces rather than simply calling it negative/positive space, is it is often referred to in textbooks.

Clearly Defined Negative / Positive Space

The subject is clearly defined from the background. The viewer has no difficulty telling the background (negative space) from the subject (positive space).

Visual Information

To understand how integrated negative/positive space works, you need to understand the concept of visual information.

This rule states that humans need to have enough visual information for the brain to figure out what is going on in an image. Let’s see what happens when you lack enough visual information.

What is the shape that you see in the image below?

You saw a triangle in the last slide because there was enough visual information for the brain to make the connection.

By deleting a circle you are removing important visual information and the brain no longer sees the complete triangle.

Integrated Negative/Positive Space

The areas of the negative/positive space seem to merge in areas but there is enough visual information about the negative and positive space for the viewer to distinctly tell the difference between the two.

The areas of the negative/positive space seem to merge in areas but there is enough visual information about the negative and positive space for the viewer to distinctly tell the difference between the two.

Feelings that can be associated with this type of negative/positive space are foggy, mysterious, uncertain, etc.

Ambiguous Negative / Positive Space

In Ambiguous Negative/Positive Space, the viewer is unable to distinguish the negative space from the positive space. This form of negative/positive space is more commonly used in the fine arts, wallpaper and fabric design.

Feelings that can be associated with this type of negative/positive space, on an unconscious level are chaos, motion, high energy, uneasiness, etc.

Partial Ambiguous Negative/Positive Space

We will not be studying this type of Negative/Positive Space, but I want to make you aware of it.  In a partially ambiguous negative/positive space, only a section of the negative/positive space is ambiguous.  In the image below the center section of black and white birds and plots of the fields are ambiguous.

Logo design is an area where designers commonly use partial ambiguous negative/positive space. The Fed Ex logo is famous for its arrow negative space. 

  1. What is creating the rhythm?
  2. What word(s) would you use to describe the rhythm?

Credits: Some of the information in this presentation comes from the book, Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer

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