Negative space provides opportunities for designers of all kinds to create strong symbolism and pack hidden surprises into their work to create a lasting impression. While positive space in an image is its main focus – the object itself – negative space is just as important, and clever use of it, be that within and surrounding an object, can be hugely effective.
Sharing edges with the positive space, negative space defines the outline of the object and creates proportion. As we know from the famous yin and yang symbol, both forces need to be present. We can't have positive space without negative space and vice versa. But negative space can also be used to, for example, form the shape of another image or symbol. Designers can also use positive space that carves out shapes in the negative space to create a kind of interlocking puzzle. The results can be stunning and can be particularly memorable for logo design and illustrations for posters and book covers, as we'll see below.
Read on for 18 brilliant examples of negative space for inspiration and scroll down further for five top tips on how to use negative space in your own work courtesy of artist Timothy Von Rueden. You can click on the icon at the top-right of each image to enlarge it. If your interest in negative space is related to logo design, make sure you also see our guide to the golden rules of how to design a logo.
18 great examples of negative space
01. The Guild of Food Writers
The logo for the Guild of Food Writers is one of the most acclaimed uses of negative space in logo design, and one that's often emulated. Designed in 2005 by the now-defunct London agency 300million, it depicts a spoon in the negative space created by a fountain pen nib. It's wonderfully simple and sums up what the Guild does. Of course, its longevity will depend upon whether future generations will be able to recognise a fountain pen.
02. The Testaments
Noma Bar is well-known for his illustrations that use negative space, 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 wildlife charity SANCCOB uses negative space as a trademark and even within its logo. Its See the Reality campaign featured a series of stunning posters that make remarkable use of negative space. The relationship between the negative and positive space was particularly significant here marking the fatal transformation from living to extinct penguins.
04. The 8 of diamonds playing card
One very clever use of negative space holds a secret hidden right in front of our eyes. On the humble eight of diamonds playing card, the white space between the red diamonds resembles the number of the card. It's been this way for a long, long time, but many people never notice until it's pointed out, making this a nice little design secret that you can't unsee once you know it's there.
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.
06. 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 new streamlined logo created by W+K London and accompanied by three custom typefaces designed by Marc Rouault. The number 1 appears in the negative space between the F and the go-faster stripes. It's easy to interpret but gives a sense of dynamism and speed.
07. Pittsburgh Zoo
Why would a zoo have a sole tree as its logo? Well, look a little closer at the logo for Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and you'll see that the space around the tree actually forms a gorilla and what looks to us like a lioness. Can you spot anything else?
08. Air Max 2017
Negative space doesn't have to be static. When Nike wanted to draw attention to the ultralight support in its Air Max 2017 trainers, ManvsMachine delivered a campaign that showed this through a series of visual metaphors inspired by scenarios encountered on an everyday run. Rather than use an actual Air Max, it employs a trainer-shaped piece of negative space to suggest air. And very clever it is too.
09. 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 tragic news stories, but this video for the World Food Programme drives home the plight of refugees in a very powerful way. Designed by negative space master Noma Bar and animated by Ale Accini, the 30-second video entitled 'Symbols' uses stunning visual shorthand in its plea to help stop hunger and start peace. It's emotively narrated by Liam Neeson.
11. Anything by 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's conceptual, surreal and fun in a simplistic and unique way. A whole section of his website is dedicated to the art of negative space and he has tons of fantastic examples of how the concept can be used to great creative effect. His work often shows that you can often take a lot of liberty with sizes and form when using negative space.
12. Shuwa Diners
A similar idea to number one on our list, while the Guild of Food Writers logo carves a spoon out of a pen nib, Paragon International carved palm trees out of a fork to convey a sense of place in this logo for a restaurant in Oman.
This list wouldn't be complete without mentioning perhaps the most famous use of negative space in a logo. The white arrow between the E and the X in the FedEx logotype can never be forgotten once you've noticed it. Originally designed by Lindon Leader in 1994, the logo has won ample design awards and is constantly featured in 'best logos' lists. You can read our interview with Leader in our 10 best logos ever article.
We've seen a lot of highly creative, quality work from the Brazilian ad studio Leo Burnett, and this clever campaign for Fiat encouraging people not to text while driving is a highlight.
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.'
It's 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 hidden within the type. It's an innovative idea that really drives home the dangers of texting while driving.
15. The Typefaces
The Typefaces is a book from Singapore-based designer and illustrator Scott Lambert that 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 with lots of personality. He also produced T-shirts with the illustrations (see the picture at the top of the page).
This brilliant print by graphic designer Simon C. Page pits Batman versus Penguin. Part of his Cut-Out series, the piece cleverly depicts the two 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.
17. Shigeo Fukuda
Japanese poster designer and graphic artist Shigeo Fukuda's optical illusions brought him international renown. 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.
18. 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." She's certainly done that for this version of the book cover, cleverly incorporating negative space to depict various sexual positions at once.
How to use negative space
Inspired by these examples of negative space? Below the artist Timothy Von Rueden shares his top five tips on how to use negative space in your own artwork. As an artist who strived for realism, learning to use the impact and value of negative space within a piece helped him break the confines of what he believed a work of art should be.
When you’re learning how to add values to create form, the idea of intentionally leaving areas blank and untouched may seem troublesome. But I’ve learned that with great art, not everything has to follow a set rule or be rendered entirely realistically in a drawing.
This is especially true for traditional medium such as graphite, where there’s no hue or saturation contrast to rely on for directing the viewer’s eye. However, too much negative space may leave the drawing lifeless or unintentionally sloppy in execution, so there’s clearly a balance to be struck.
There’s power in keeping an area entirely blank to tell a narrative that would have been diminished had you filled it in. It can be empowering and bold as an artist to let your work be left with areas that others may describe as unfinished. Below, I’ll go over some of the points on how negative spaces can add to your overall composition and leave a lasting impression on the viewer.
01. Draw less to create more
Sometimes you can create more of an impact by what you don’t draw than by what you do. Adding areas of negative space can directly alter the overall meaning and reception of your drawing. I thoroughly recommend that you experiment with keeping some areas blank and see how the tone changes.
02. Experiment with silhouettes
The use of negative space can create shapes and silhouettes based on the shading around it. That shape then creates a powerful source of attention and point of interest. By filling in the area around the shape, you give it form and a presence that can’t be ignored.
03. Add contrast to define negative space
Similar to the contrast of light and dark values, negative space may also add a detail contrast. When placing detailed areas next to an area of negative space, there’s a pleasing visual contrast. The simplicity of the negative space will draw attention and create an area of rest.
04. Create glow and illumination
The lack of any value may create the perception that an area is glowing. This effect can be enhanced via use of lighter shading on the inside of the form emitting from the negative space. It’s a visual illusion that can add another layer of lighting and intrigue to your scene.
05. Use negative space to create narrative
Not all negative space needs to create a shape or a glow. Sometimes it’s a powerful effect that can be used to add narrative and possibly some mystery for the viewer to read into. Just because it doesn’t make sense in a realistic execution doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it!
This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine. Subscribe here.