Negative space is the space between, within and surrounding an object in an image, often to form another image or symbol. The positive space is the focus of the image, the object itself, but the negative space is just as important. It shares edges with the positive space, defining the outline of the object and creating proportion.
Artists often create positive spaces and shapes that, in turn, cleverly carve out shapes in negative space, interlocking just like a jigsaw puzzle. The results can be stunning. Here, we've found some brilliant examples, and click straight to page two to get some top tips from artist Timothy Von Rueden on how to harness negative space in your own work.
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01. The Testaments
Noma Bar is well-known for his negative space imagery, and the cover he created for Margaret Atwood's The Testaments is no exception. Look closely at the hooded figure's robe, for example, and you'll see another figure hiding. Bar has also designed a striking book cover for Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
The South African charity for penguins uses negative space as a trademark and even within its logo. The 'See the Reality' campaign featured a series of stunning posters with remarkable use of negative space. The relationship between the negative and positive space was significant in this instance, as it encouraged people to consider the transition of the penguin from alive to dead.
For the new Broadway production of Frozen, Disney commissioned this poster by advertising agency Serino Coyne and UK artist Olly Moss. It features a stylised snowflake that incorporates the main characters through a clever use of negative space, which many observers might not notice immediately.
04. Formula 1
This clever negative space logo, designed by Carter Wong studio, served Formula 1 well – it was in use from 1994 until 2017, when it was replaced by a brand new streamlined logo created by W+K London and accompanied by three custom typefaces designed by Marc Rouault.
05. Pittsburgh Zoo
Why would a zoo have a tree as its logo? Look closely at the logo for Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, however, and you'll see that the space around the tree actually forms a gorilla and what looks to us like a lioness. What else can you spot?
06. Air Max 2017
Negative space doesn't have to be static, you know. Nike wanted to draw attention to the ultralight support and maximum comfort provided by its Air Max 2017 trainers, and so ManvsMachine delivered a campaign that portrayed this through a series of visual metaphors inspired by scenarios encountered on an everyday run. Rather than use an actual Air Max, it instead employs a trainer-shaped piece of negative space to suggest air. Clever.
07. Yorokobu Numerografía
Each month, Yorokobu magazine asks an artist or designer to create a series of original numerical characters for its Numerografía section, and this was what Forma and Co came up with. The Barcelona-based team used eye-popping primary colours and a clever use of negative space that creates a 3D effect.
It's easy to become desensitised to sad news, but this video for the World Food Programme powerfully drives home the plight of refugees. Designed by negative space master Noma Bar and animated by Ale Accini, the 30-second video called 'Symbols' uses stunning visual shorthand to help stop hunger and start peace. And it's emotively narrated by Liam Neeson.
09. Tang Yau Hoong
Tang Yau Hoong is an artist, illustrator, graphic designer living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. With a passion for creative thinking, he creates art that is conceptual, surreal and fun in a simplistic and unique way. A whole section of his website is dedicated to the art of negative space.
10. The Birds
Michigan-based artist Troy DeShano has created tons of negative space art but it's this creation, based on Hitchcock's 'The Birds', that caught our eye. We love the way the figure's hair has been integrated with the silhouettes of flying birds.
This list wouldn't be complete without perhaps the most famous use of negative space in a logo. The white arrow between the E and the X, once seen is never forgotten. The logo has won ample design awards and is constantly featured in 'best logos' lists. The logo was originally designed by Lindon Leader in 1994. Read our interview with Leader about the design in our 10 best logos ever article.
We're used to seeing highly creative and quality work come from worldwide ad agency Leo Burnett, and this brilliantly clever campaign for Fiat is a particular highlight. Created by the Brazil studio, the series of ads encourages drivers not to text while driving.
A series of three prints, a large white letter R, N, and F are accompanied by a graphic of a little girl, dog, and bus respectively, each illustration creating the defining shape of each letterform. The taglines state: 'You either see the letter or the dog (bus, little girl). Don’t text and drive.'
This is a fantastic example of how clever use of negative space can make a big impact. The stark contrast between black and white creates beautiful silhouettes of the girl, dog and bus hidden within the type. An innovative idea that really drives home the dangers of texting while driving.
13. The Typefaces
The Typefaces is a book from Singapore-based designer and illustrator Scott Lambert, which aims to celebrate playful products for kids and kids-at-heart. "Inspired by letterpress printing and childlike observations, The Typefaces are simply faces in type," Lambert explains. Negative space allows Lambert to give each letter a friendly face.
It's Batman versus Penguin in this brilliant print by graphic designer Simon C. Page. Part of his Cut-Out series, Page cleverly depicts both characters using negative space. The bald head and long pointy nose are instantly identifiable as Danny Devito's Penguin, which in turn, carves out the bold silhouette of Michael Keaton as Batman.
15. Shigeo Fukuda
Japanese poster designer and graphic artist Shigeo Fukuda's optical illusions brought him international renown. Much like many of his pieces, this striking black and white print, constructed of minimal, considered lines, is slightly disorientating – a theme that ran through his work up until his death in 2009.
16. The Kama Sutra
When French artist and illustrator Malika Favre was commissioned to create the cover for this naughty classic, she went through many iterations – including this one – to get to the final design.
Known for her distinctive use of graphic shapes and bold colours, Favre comments on her website: "I try and get to the essence of my subject by using as few lines and colours as it needs to convey the core of the idea." And she's certainly done that for this version of the book cover, cleverly incorporated negative space into the design to depict various sexual positions.