Designing What’s Not There by Max Hancock

Designing What’s Not There

Visual design often involves displaying and arranging a number of elements within a composition. But another way to understand what helps a design is to understand what parts of the design are not visible.

By Max Hancock

Figure 1, Two Rectangles

Figure 1, Two Rectangles

Examine Figure 1. You’re probably thinking,  “I see two rectangles, or maybe an equal sign.” But if you look closer, you may discover there is actually more there even though it’s not entirely obvious to you. There is more that doesn’t fully register in your thinking of it, or rather, hasn’t manifested in your thinking of it. In fact, for me, the realization in discovering what isn’t there was a fundamental concept I learned and used early in my career, and it is still a part of the design methods I use today. Designing what isn’t there is just as important as designing what is there.

The Space Between

Looking at the image above, most people recognize first what is positive on the page– the two rectangles, but the space between the two rectangles is the third shape within the layout. The negative space between the positive shapes, is an important part of the design, because after all, there would be no two recognizable parallel rectangles without the space between them. With any design that is simple or complex, keeping track of the negative space between all of the elements is a helpful device for creating well balanced designs. For instance, you may be designing a Web site that encompasses several blocks of information and images. How you decide to handle the space between the blocks and images is best understood by first recognizing that the spaces between are parts of the layout. And, utilizing negative space between elements is not limited to layouts. As such, often with logo design the negative space is used a symbolic part of the whole. Think about the arrow symbol within the FedEx logo. And with font design, how well negative space is balanced with the positive shape is what makes a great, readable font design. When the negative shapes seem to help and hold the positive shapes together, it generates a unified whole that is pleasing to the eye.

The Space Outside

How a designer decides to reveal the subject of a composition can be controlled by how he or she crops it. At some point in design history it became popular to crop into the subject of a composition so that only maybe 80 percent of it was revealed. Utilizing extreme cropping makes for a greater visual impact. Why? Because it is left to the person looking at the subject to complete the entirety of it in their imagination. In figure 1, there is an equal amount of empty space around the two rectangles. By cropping it this way, one could imagine that this ‘empty space’ is infinite. However, in figure 2, because of how the rectangles are cropped, the viewer is left to wonder if the rectangles actually continue infinitely.

Figure 2. Two Rectangles (cropped)

Figure 2. Two Rectangles (cropped)

The Hidden

While understanding the benefits of cropping and evaluating negative spaces are typical in understanding good design, designing what I like to call ‘the hidden’ is a little more tricky. Here, we are getting at the subtlety of what we put into our designs. For instance, if you look at figure 1 long enough (focus intensely on it) you will see that I design a dark halo around the outer edges of the rectangles. In fact, there are actually no halos physically added to the design. What actually makes the halos is the contrast of the colors of the shapes against the background. Because I know of this effect and what it is doing to my design, I think of it as part of my design.

While I lived in Singapore, I met a designer whom was also a self-described otaku (someone obsessed with comics and anime). He showed me how manga artist can hide images and symbols within plain sight, perhaps in the foreground or right in the center of the composition even, but they are bypassed and you do not see them because the main imagery of the composition (the focal point) takes priority in the visual experience.  By using perceived expectations one might have in what they are looking at, a designer can play tricks on the eye and hide design elements in plain sight. I call this the ‘Otaku Mind Trick,’  just to remind myself of it.

The Mental Image

How the viewer interprets your composition is sometimes brought on by thoughts and visualizations of what isn’t present in the composition. Especially if a design (like the ones above) are ambiguous enough, the viewer will attach their own meaning to what  he or she is looking at. In figure 1. the viewer could think, “This is a large equal sign, or maybe a window, or perhaps I’m looking down at the top of two buildings.”

As more elements are added to a composition, then could the viewer’s mental visualizations be shared at a greater scale. Mastering the art of just the precise amount of elements to convey the intended idea is one of the greatest skills a graphic designer can possess.

Figure 3. Two Buildings

Figure 3. Two Buildings


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