Learn the difference between positive and negative space and get valuable tips on using them to take your designs to the next level.
Artistic expertise requires more than raw talent. All the greats of art and design studied tirelessly to understand how each element contributes to the final product. Using positive and negative space is a fundamental lesson in any budding designer’s journey to master their craft.
Whether they know it or not, every artist and designer works with positive and negative space, but they need a keen understanding of the concepts to produce impactful pieces. Our comprehensive guide can show you how to utilize different types of space in your next work of art.
What is space in art and design? 🌌
In common usage, “space” describes the physical area that objects occupy. In art and design, space is about more than just length, width, and depth; it refers to how you use these dimensions.
Space is used to discuss the relationship between objects in a (typically two-dimensional) layout, including their relative size, perspective, and distance between them. It’s one of the seven foundational elements of art, alongside line, shape, texture, form, color, and value.
When critics talk about a piece’s composition, they’re referring to its use of space. The composition conveys meaning by drawing attention to a piece’s focal points and creating dynamics between its components.
Space is a fundamental aspect of art and design, but for all its complexity, all types of space can be divided into just two types: positive and negative.
Understanding positive and negative space 🕳️
Whether a finger painting stuck to the fridge or a masterwork in the Louvre, all art uses positive and negative space to send a message. The difference between a beginner artist and a top-paid graphic designer lies in their ability to use these concepts with clear intention.
So, what are positive and negative space in art?
What is positive space in art? ✔️
Positive space is the area of focus in a piece. In representational art, it’s what the image depicts — the person in a portrait or the objects in a still life. But even abstract designs have positive space. Some parts of the image draw the eye with increased visual interest.
What is negative space in art? ☑️
Now that you understand positive space, it’s not hard to guess the definition of negative space. It’s the area in an image that doesn’t contain focal points or objects of interest. The background in a painting or the white space in a logo design is negative space.
This isn’t to say negative space must be totally blank. A blue sky or brick wall behind the main focus of a portrait is negative space, as is a field of solid color or texture in a design. Any part of an image that feels neutral is negative space, meaning it only exists relative to positive space.
How to use positive and negative space 🖼️
Remember, positive space and negative space are relative concepts that only exist in reference to each other; neither is more important. Every artist and designer works with negative and positive space, whether they realize it or not, so it’s wise to understand their interaction. Independent artists and designers who apply this dynamic with intention will produce more appealing work.
Here are three ways contrasting spaces are used in art and graphic design:
Highlighting areas of interest 👀
When you plan a composition, it may be tempting to stick your subject in the center, surrounded by negative space. This is called central composition, and it’s a perfectly valid approach, but only when there is an apparent reason for the choice. An experienced photographer or traditional painter will tell you this layout is far from the default. Using asymmetrical guidelines, such as the rule of thirds or the golden spiral (aka Fibonacci spiral), creates instant visual interest.
Web design and user interface design necessitate careful layout consideration, including a balance of positive and negative space. The layout should draw the viewer’s eye to important info and features to increase usability.
Evoking a feeling 🎭
In abstract designs, such as logos and user interfaces, positive and negative space tell the viewers what is important, but they also convey a feeling that paints viewers’ perception of the product. Rigid, geometric shapes with even spacing may communicate structure, seriousness, or reliability. On the other hand, fluid shapes or uneven spacing can give a softer, more casual impression. In either case, a clear delineation between spaces makes for an easily recognized and interpreted design.
Creating multiple meanings 👥
Clever designs sometimes use negative space to create a whole new image in the area around the main subject. Negative space art — a familiar tool in optical illusions — features two interlocking figures, often in black and white. Think of Rubin’s vase, the famous silhouette image that looks like a vase in the center or two faces in profile on either side. Which one you see depends on what you interpret as the positive versus the negative space.
Positive and negative space examples
Although all visual media employs positive and negative space, logos provide some of the most clear-cut examples. These designs must be instantly recognizable at any size and deliver a strong message while remaining simple.
Check out these positive and negative space examples to gain inspiration for your own designs:
World Wide Fund for Nature 🐼
The giant panda’s distinct black-and-white coat makes it an ideal mascot for wildlife conservation, and the WWF’s logo expertly applies negative space to represent it. The gaps between the black shapes form the white areas of the panda’s body.
The use of negative space is not limited to shapes and images; well-designed typefaces also require an understanding of this design principle. FedEx provides a concrete example in its logo, which creates a forward-pointing arrow in the negative space between the final two letters, telling customers it will get their packages wherever they need to go.
Brand designers on Contra are creating clever logos using negative space as well. Godfred Brako’s logo design for Polldeck uses the negative space inside the letter P to create the silhouette of a thumbs-up. Brako crafted the logo to embody trust and approval while communicating Polldeck’s services as a data collection and analytics platform.
Tips for applying positive and negative space in your designs 🌗
Impactful design relies on creativity, insight, and a discerning eye. You can start honing your skills by gaining a firm grasp of the fundamentals. If you’re eager to experiment with space in your designs, we have helpful tips to get you started.
1. Support the underlying message 🏋️
In design, each visual element should be constructed to send a clear message. This includes the spaces between elements, too. Examine your client’s ethos or your artistic intention before you establish your piece’s layout. Would it benefit from a busy feeling — achieved via many small, tight-knit positive spaces — or something more sparse and serene? Many of these questions can be answered by a branding and style guide.
Repeating patterns and carefully selected ratios create a sense of rhythm in the overall composition that pleases the eye and lends an air of reliability. It also lets you direct viewers’ focus, showing them what is most important about your design and delivering your message.
2. Find your balance ⚖️
Balance is a key aspect of composition, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to include an even 50-50 ratio of positive and negative space. The proper proportions often rely on the message you’re trying to convey.
Various spaces may carry different amounts of visual weight, so balance depends on context. For example, a small positive space in the middle of a large negative space might imply the subject is lonely or insignificant, but it could just as easily set it apart and draw attention.
3. Play with color 🎨
Despite being referred to as whitespace by some, negative space doesn’t need to be blank. Any hues can be used to create contrasting spaces, and your choice of palette influences the mood of the overall design. Dark positive space and light negative space can convey airy simplicity, whereas light subjects on a dark background may feel weightier and more solid.
These color choices also influence the balance of your design, as some colors feel heavier than others. Every design choice is connected, and the relationship between spaces is core to it all.
Find a positive space on Contra 🌟
If you’re an independent designer or artist, you’ll find ideal opportunities on Contra. Sign up today and let our freelancing platform match you with clients who need your help, guaranteeing a fair rate. The best part? Your pay is commission-free!