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Design thinking
Design thinking

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3.1.5 Positive and negative space

Most pictures focus on something and we distinguish between this thing and its background because there is contrast between the two. We call these two characteristics the ‘figure’ and the ‘ground’. We might consider these as the ‘positive’ space and the ‘negative’ space.

Look at the poster in Figure 19. This displays a strong contrast between the colourful figures and the dark ground. Can you read it? It says IBM (eye, bee, M). Clarity of figure and ground is important if it is to quickly communicate its humour and its advertising message to viewers. Interestingly it exploits a lot of negative space when you might think the positive space – the letters – were more important.

Described image
Figure 19 Paul Rand’s famous poster for IBM

Figure 20 shows an example by M.C. Escher that cleverly uses positive and negative space. Can you see where the fish end and the birds begin? Also, which is the positive space and which is the negative space? The interrelation of positive and negative space in this composition provides an interesting metaphor for interrelations in nature.

M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water I” © 2009 The M.C. Escher Company-Holland. All rights reserved.
Figure 20 Sky and Water 1

This principle of composition is not limited to artists. Figure 21 shows the interior of a church designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Can you identify positive and negative space in his architecture? Whereas a cross is often the ‘figure’ attached to the wall (background) in a church, here Ando inverts this. He allows external light to enter in the shape of a cross, creating a strong contrast between the figure (cross) and ground (wall).

Figure 21 Tadao Ando’s ‘Church of light’ in Osaka, Japan

Activity 14 Figure and ground

Now it is your turn to create a composition where figure and ground, positive and negative space, are indistinguishable. The interactive activity below allows you to manipulate the white and black areas. Try to achieve an effect where the viewer can see two alternative images in your composition.

Click ‘View’ below to start the activity, which will open in a new window.

Active content not displayed. This content requires JavaScript to be enabled.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

When you are satisfied with your composition, click the ‘save’ button. This will let you save a jpeg image on your computer.


Figure 22 Nicole’s composition

In this picture we can see a river flowing through a valley and also claws of an animal, maybe a bear holding something or something being ripped apart. Can you see these images too?