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Design Guy, Episode 38, Adopt a Negative Attitude

Design Guy, Episode 38, Adopt a Negative Attitude

Download Episode 38 Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply. Today we'll discuss why, sometimes, you've got to get negative to be positive. No, we're not talking creative mood swings here, or how to channel your anger into your work, or anything like that. We're talking about "negative space." And how giving attention to the negative space can strengthen our design compositions. Okay, so what exactly is "negative space"? Well, first of all, negative space is kind of an unfortunate phrase because the word "negative" is such a downer, but in the context of art and design, it is simply the opposite of positive space. Now, of course, that's not so helpful since we haven't defined positive space, either, so let's start there... Positive space is the shape of your foreground elements. If, say, you're looking at an illustration of a hippopatomus performing a high-wire act, carrying an umbrella - all the elements I've just described - the hippo, the umbrella, the high wire, make up the foreground elements. Taken together, their collective silhoutte defines the positive space. On the other hand, the space that surrounds her is the negative space (and yes, the hippo is a girl). So, if you were to take a marker and color in everything but the hippo, the high-wire and umbrella, you will have defined the negative space. Here's another example, drawn from Betty Edward's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain."(1) Edwards reminds us of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, where Bugs Bunny reacts to something an runs. Maybe it was that episode in the mad scientist's castle with that big, orange haired monster wearing tennis shoes. Anyway, he panics and he runs, slamming right through a door, leaving a Bugs Bunny shaped hole behind. And it's that hole in the door that we want to remember. Because, in that hole, we see the exact shape of Bugs Bunny - his head and ears, his arms and legs, all perfectly circumscribed. So, that hole represents the positive shape, the positive space of Bugs. And it's what's left behind of the door that is the negative space, because the remaining part of the door captured the negative shape surrounding Bugs Bunny. I like this example because the the door put us in mind of our canvas or page which is almost always a rectangle of some sort. And with the positive space extracted (i.e., the shape of Bugs Bunny), what we've got left is our negative space. If you've logged as many hours as I have watching Chuck Jones cartoons, then this example is great and visual, and you'll never forget how to describe negative space. I mentioned this came out of Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and if you're anything like me, somewhat frustrated with your drawing abilities, you'll want to grab this title for your library because it can really help you, really help you translate what you see to the page. It's also chock full of dramatic before and after examples of her students' work, which start out as just, totally juvenile looking stuff (I mean, stuff that looks like third-grade art class), but that progress, in some cases, to some pretty mature work. And not to digress too far on this subject of drawing, I was very encouraged once reading an interview with designer, Paula Scher. (2) If you don't know who she is, Paula Scher is an acclaimed designer with a very distinctive typographic style. She recounted about how she drew the honest conclusion that she couldn't draw all that well, but that she loved type, and focused on how to compose type and image together in innovative ways. And now, artistically challenged Paula Scher is at the top of her field. So, just a quick anecdote to encourage some of you out there. Designers can feel very insecure about their work and their abilities, and it helps to hear things like that now and then. Back to negative space... Edwards, like many art teachers, instructs her students to draw th

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