Foresight Analysis: Negative Space

Negative Space – Xanthe Brookes Reports

Negative Space - Xanthe Brookes Reports

First seen in MIX Magazine, issue 45, in our trend Ma we look at how the space around and between objects can inform and influence colour and design choices. Report by Xanthe Brookes.

Negative space is one of the first optical tricks taught to children; the classic two faces or a vase question. Essentially this is about shifting focus from the object, colour or subject to the surrounding space, a sleight of hand that also generates interesting questions and ideas about what is real and what isn’t. AsJean Ensell, Lecturer, Printed Textiles and Surface Design, Birmingham City University, explains: “Exploring negative space is about precision and control combined with embracing serendipity; enjoying the interplay between the two. It also allows us to take a moment and visually pause, allowing us to see colours in new and often unexpected ways,” she says.

Negative space is so important in Japanese art that there is a specific word, Ma (the inspiration behind one of MIX Magazine’s trends) that roughly translates to space or pause. Essentially, in art, this is not the composition committed to paper, but rather the suggestion of what is happening around the lines put down on the paper or canvas. The empty space inspires the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. For the most perfect expression of Ma, look no further than the work of Japanese artist Hasegawa Tōhaku and his Shōrin-zu byōbu (pine trees) screen. Here the trees are sparsely spread and appear to be lost in the mist of the screen, rendering the space utterly compelling and beautiful.

With negative space a central premise of Japanese aesthetics, it is no surprise that a retrospective of the work of Nendo, in Design Museum Holon, Israel, was called The Space in Between, including ‘In the Shade’ constructed using a collection of five free standing sheets of glass coloured by Glas Italia, supported by Caesarstone pedestals. Nendo’s designs deftly explore the gaps or spaces in between layers to tie together new ideas. “Widening, truncating, or replacing these gaps with completely different elements can bring about new functions and meanings from the inside,” says Oki Sato of Nendo.

And, of course, for inspirational use of negative space, look no further than the field of graphic design. Playing with negative space allows design agencies to effectively achieve a two in one impact with a logo, layering meaning and impact. Take FedEx’s logo with the white arrow almost hidden in the arrangement of the E and X, originally designed by Lindon Leader. Or there’s the World Wild Life panda, originally designed by Sir Peter Scott and modified by Landor, or even NBC’s famous peacock, perhaps one of the world’s most recognised logos.

Designers can harness this at once ancient and modern approach to looking, inspired by ideas around negative space. Using this optical trick can help encourage more creative thinking, embracing a broader approach that, with luck, could yield exciting and unexpected results, especially when it comes to using colour. And what could be better than that?