The Key Elements & Principles of Visual Design
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Negative space (also called white space or whitespace) is the unmarked areas between and within a design’s visual components. It may be any color, texture, pattern, or even a background image. Designers use it to create a balance between design elements and provide visual breathing room for content.
“Less is more” is the short answer. In user experience (UX) design and particularly user interface (UI) design, a powerful element can significantly make your website or application more effective and usable. But it’s one that designers often overlook. Called negative space, it is also known as whitespace and white space. This unmarked space between design elements plays a crucial role as it helps create a visually appealing and user-friendly interface.
The concept of positive and negative space is nothing new. Negative space in art has long been known to give elements “room to breathe.” And it helps direct the viewer’s attention to important subject matter. In that sense, that blank or “nothing” area works with the visual content and is just as important as it.
Despite the name, negative space is a highly positive tool, and how well you use it can make or break a design. Active negative space is what you use to strategically enhance your design’s structure and guide users through the content. There’s also passive negative space, which is more for aesthetic appeal. Rather than contribute to the design’s structure, it enhances the user experience through visual relief and making the design easier to understand.
“Whitespace is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.”
— Jan Tschichold, calligrapher, typographer & book designer, influential in 20th-century graphic design
This idea of empty space is more than just an aesthetic element. It has a profound impact on the effectiveness of a user interface. Importantly, it’s not a matter of black and white elements. It can involve any color and having sufficient screen space left unmarked. Some key reasons why negative space is crucial in UX design are:
One of the primary advantages of negative space is how it can enhance the readability and legibility of content. When you use appropriate spacing between lines of paragraphs and in the margins, users can read and understand the information more easily. Research has shown an important point. Namely, increasing space between paragraphs and in the left and right margins can improve comprehension, according to UX Planet editor-in-chief Nick Babich, by up to 20%.
Negative space helps guide users' attention and focus on specific elements or sections of a webpage or application. When you provide ample space around important content, you can direct users' eyes to the key information or call-to-action buttons. This ensures that users can quickly and effortlessly identify and engage with the most critical elements on the page. Because they are paying attention, the viewer’s eye can achieve more.
When you include negative space in your designs, it helps create a sense of organization and clarity. It lets you separate different sections and elements in each work you create. This makes the overall layout more visually appealing and easier to navigate. So, avoid clutter and provide sufficient space in an image, space between columns, and space between text and other elements. That way, you can ensure that users can easily find and understand the content they are looking for.
Negative space plays a crucial role to establish a visual hierarchy within a design. You can strategically use the space to create different levels of emphasis and draw attention appropriately. That way, you can guide users through the content and highlight important elements, such as bull’s-eyeing them with sufficient negative space around. This helps them quickly understand the structure of the page and navigate through it more efficiently. Here, it’s helpful when you know how users tend to scan screens. That’s typically in an F-pattern when reading content or a Z-pattern.
Negative space can also contribute to the overall branding and style of a website or application. When you use this space intentionally, you can create a sense of elegance, sophistication, and professionalism. Brands like Apple, Mercedes Benz, and IKEA are known for their minimalistic designs. They use negative space effectively and convey a sense of luxury and quality.
Here are some practical tips to effectively apply negative space in interfaces:
Embrace the concept of minimalism when you simplify your design and remove any unnecessary elements or clutter. This allows negative space to take center stage and create a clean and uncluttered interface. It might sound counterintuitive to make “nothing” so important, given that it seems to imply lack of design effort. However, it’s a vital skill, and an antidote to excessive design or horror vacui. Think of Google’s crisp, calming homepage as a fine example of minimalist, and highly successful, design.
Keep the spacing consistent throughout your design; it will create a sense of harmony and balance. This includes spacing between paragraphs, images, buttons, and other UI elements. Consistency in spacing helps users develop a mental model of your interface. This makes it easier for them to navigate and interact with the content. Plus, that evenness establishes a calming sense of order that helps foster trust in your brand.
Use negative space strategically to prioritize and highlight important content or elements. When you provide more space around crucial information or call-to-action buttons, you can draw users' attention. From there, you can guide them towards desired actions.
Understand the distinction between micro and macro negative space and experiment with both types in your design. Micro negative space refers to the small gaps within elements, such as line spacing and margins. Macro negative space, on the other hand, refers to the larger space between major layout elements. When you balance both types effectively, you can create a visually appealing and organized layout.
While negative space is essential, it is crucial to strike the right balance. Too much of it may make the design feel empty and lacking in content. Meanwhile, too little can make the interface appear cluttered and overwhelming. Aim for a harmonious balance that allows the content to breathe while maintaining a visually pleasing composition.
Remember, negative space can even be an image that you work into your product design’s interface. Just make sure it’s not “busy”-looking, and keep it in step with your brand message. That’s what you want to resonate from your brand to your visitors, users, and—hopefully—customers after making that conversion.
Another important point to understand is negative space’s role in the Gestalt design principles. These Gestalt principles, or laws, are essential parts of your designer’s toolbox. They include the principles of figure-ground, closure and common fate. They involve the role of negative space to make the “magic” work in web design and more.
Ultimately, user tests will show how effective the negative space in your designer work is. Such techniques as eye tracking can reveal a great deal about how negative space works to make your interface usable, desirable and more.
Brands that effectively utilize negative space in their interfaces include:
Apple is famous for its clean and minimalist design aesthetic. Their use of ample negative space creates a sense of elegance and sophistication. It emphasizes the importance of their products and brand. The space surrounding their products on their website allows the user to focus solely on the product. This enhances the overall user experience.
Medium is a platform that prioritizes readability and user experience. Their use of negative space between paragraphs and around images creates a visually appealing and easy-to-read layout. The generous spacing allows users to focus on the content without feeling overwhelmed.
Google's homepage is a prime example of effective use of negative space. The simplicity and minimalism of their design features ample negative, or, more literally, white space surrounding the search bar. This creates a calm and focused user experience. Users can easily locate the search bar and enter their query without any distractions.
Overall, remember that negative space is one of the most powerful design tools you can use. It’s there to strategically complement the positive space you include as focal points. It’s a big part of the product experience, and one that no designer should underestimate. So, apply it strategically. You can significantly impact the success of your designs, which will be able to breathe and shine.
Take our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide.
Read our piece The Key Elements & Principles of Visual Design.
See Nick Babich’s The Power of Whitespace for more sharp insights.
Find more details in this Bootcamp piece: “White Space in Design: Important Guidelines Every Designer Should Know”
Negative space, also known as white space, is crucial in design for several reasons:
Negative space helps to provide visual clarity and organization in your designs. It separates different elements, making it easier for the users to understand the content and the relationships between the elements you include on, for example, a web page.
Adequate space around text and other content improves readability. It prevents text from appearing crowded. That makes it easier for the users to absorb information as they are paying attention more. It’s especially helpful on mobile devices where the screen real estate is at a premium. Vertical white space between lines of text is also important, particularly for longer lines. Otherwise users can find it difficult to locate the start of the next line.
You can use negative space strategically to draw attention to specific elements. When you surround an element with white space, you can make it stand out and create a focal point.
Negative space is an important part of visual design. When you include it in the right amount, it contributes to the overall aesthetics, be it on a mobile app or in website design. Along with such factors as typeface and font size, it can make your designs appear more elegant, clean, and visually appealing.
Reducing Cognitive Load:
When a design is too cluttered, it increases cognitive load on the viewer. When you include the right amount of empty space, you reduce this load by providing breathing room. That makes it far less overwhelming for users.
In the digital age, negative or white space is essential for responsive web design. It allows content to adapt to different screen sizes, ensuring a good user experience on various devices.
Use it consistently and white space can become part of your brand's identity. For example, Apple is known for its minimalist design that incorporates ample white space. Not only does white space improve the user experience, it also helps foster trust between the user and your brand.
Balance and Harmony:
Negative space contributes to the balance and harmony of a design. It lets you distribute elements evenly, creating a sense of equilibrium.
Good user experience (UX) design:
Negative space is critical for creating user-friendly interfaces. It helps prevent accidental clicks or taps on touch devices and enhances navigation.
Negative space can influence the viewer's perception of a design. A clean and uncluttered layout can convey a sense of professionalism and trustworthiness. Proven in graphic design, white space is not merely the absence of content; it is a valuable and purposeful element in good UX design. So, use it strategically to improve aesthetics, functionality, and the overall user experience. When it comes to usability tests, you will find it a valuable tool and essential part of the design process.
There are several ways to add negative space in HTML, including:
Using the non-breaking space entity: The non-breaking space entity is the fastest and easiest method to insert space in HTML. It is written as and creates a non-breaking space in text. For example, to create five blank spaces between two words in HTML using the HTML entity name, type the entity five times between the words. You do not need to type any spaces between the entities.
Using the <br> tag: The <br> tag is intended for single-line breaks only, not multiple-line breaks in a row. To add extra space between lines of text, type <br> on each line you want to make blank.
Using the <pre> tag: The <pre> tag displays the text exactly as you type or paste it, spaces and all. To use it, type <pre> at the beginning of the text you want to display and </pre> at the end.
Using CSS padding and margins: If you need to add more whitespace between text sections, CSS padding, and margins are a better option since they produce cleaner code.
Using space entities: Another way to add space is to add space entities, like the non-breaking space entity. Keep in mind that there are several space entities, and this particular entity does not word-wrap, which may not be the behavior you want.
There are several ways to add negative space or white space in Python, depending on the specific use case. Here are some options:
1. Use print(): One way to add space between variables while printing is to list the variables in the print() statement separated by a comma and a space. For example, you can use the following code to output two different variables with a space between them:
2. Use string concatenation: Another way to add space is to concatenate two strings using the + operator. For example, you can use the following code to concatenate two strings with a space between them:
result = str1 + " " + str2
3. Use f-strings: You can use f-strings to add space between variables. For example, you can use the following code to output two different variables with a space between them:
4. Use join(): If you have a list of words, you can add space between the words using the join() method. For example, you can use the following code to output a list of words with a space between them:
list_of_words = ["apple", "banana", "orange"]
5. Use string methods: You can use the string methods ljust() and rjust() to add spaces to the end or beginning of a string, respectively. For example, you can use the following code to add spaces to the end of a string:
result = my_str.ljust(6, ' ')
It is important to note that white spaces refer to blank spaces between items within a Python statement and two blank lines that are between two Python statements. It is good practice to use white spaces because it makes your program more readable.
There are several ways to remove negative space or white space in Python. Here are some of the most common methods:
1. Using strip(): This method removes leading and trailing whitespace characters (spaces, tabs, and newline characters) from a string. To remove all whitespace from a string, you can use the replace() method to replace all whitespace characters with an empty string, and then use strip() to remove any remaining leading or trailing whitespace. Here's an example:
text = " This is a string with whitespace. "
text = text.replace(" ", "")
text = text.strip()
2. Using split() and join(): This method splits the string into a list of words, removes any whitespace characters from the list, and then joins the words back together into a single string. Here's an example:
text = " This is a string with whitespace. "
text = "".join(text.split())
3. Using translate(): This method removes all whitespace characters from a string using the translate() method. Here's an example:
text = " This is a string with whitespace. "
text = text.translate(str.maketrans("", "", string.whitespace))
4. Using regular expressions: This method uses the re.sub() function to replace all whitespace characters with an empty string. Here's an example:
text = " This is a string with whitespace. "
text = re.sub(r"\s+", "", text)
All of these methods will remove negative space or white space ("whitespace") from a string in Python.
Negative space, or white space, characters are used for spacing and formatting within text but are not typically visible when displayed. Common white space characters include:
Space (``) character: This is the most common white space character and represents a blank space.
o Tab (\t) character: Represents a horizontal tabulation.
o Newline (\n) character: Represents the end of a line and the beginning of a new line.
o Carriage return (\r) character: Typically used in combination with the newline character to represent a new line in certain contexts.
o Form feed (\f) character: Represents a form feed or page break.
o Vertical tab (\v) character: Represents a vertical tabulation.
These characters are essential for structuring code, formatting text, and ensuring readability. They often feature in programming languages, markup languages, and other contexts where text formatting is important
Both "white space" and "whitespace" are common spellings, and both are considered correct depending on the context.
In typography, "white space" is the more common use to refer to the empty space between characters and lines of text. In computer programming, "whitespace" is in more common use to refer to any character or series of characters that represent horizontal or vertical space.
However, the terms are often used interchangeably, and there is no strict rule about which spelling to use in a given context. It's worth noting that some style guides and dictionaries may have a preference for one spelling over the other, so it's always a good idea to check the specific guidelines for the context in which you are writing.
You can also use the term “negative space” to refer to “white space” and “whitespace”.
Positive and negative space are design concepts that refer to the relationship between the subject of a piece of art or design and the space around it.
Positive space is the area that contains the subject or areas of interest in a work of art or design. It could be, for example, a person's face in a portrait or the objects in a still life painting.
Negative space—also called white space—is the area around the subject or areas of interest. It is the empty space that surrounds the design elements you include in filling the frame of an image.
Negative and positive space in art are vital components in creating visually appealing pieces of artwork.
In user interface (UI) design, you use positive and negative space to create a sense of balance, rhythm, and harmony in your compositions. By manipulating the amount of positive and negative space in a design, you can create different moods and emotions in the viewer. For example, minimalist designs with negative space are often used to communicate calm and soothing feelings, while designs with more positive space can convey energy and excitement.
It’s important to understand the relationship between positive and negative space; a vital part of graphic design, web design and more. So, use these concepts to create compelling and effective compositions that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are helpful in solving a problem for your users.
Here are some highly cited academic works related to the subject of negative space, or white space, in user experience design and user interface design:
1. Coursaris, C. & Kripintris, K. (2012). "Web Aesthetics and Usability: An Empirical Study of the Effects of White Space". This study provides valuable insights into the use of white space in web design and its impact on user experience.
2. Wang, Y., Zong, S., Zong, S. & Wang, Y. (2008). "White space design and its application for website interface". The article discusses the importance of white space in creating a clean and uncluttered design, and provides examples of how to use white space to enhance the user experience. The authors also discuss the challenges of using white space in website design, including the need to balance white space with content and the importance of considering cultural differences.
3. Cheng, F. (2017) "The Impact of White Space on User Experience for Tablet Editions of Magazines”. This thesis explores the impact of white space on user experience for tablet editions of magazines. It includes references to several academic works related to white space in user experience design.
1. "White Space Is Not Your Enemy" by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen
This book is specifically dedicated to design principles, including the use of white space. It's suitable for both beginners and experienced designers, offering practical advice on layout and composition.
2. "Layout Essentials: 100 Design Principles for Using Grids" by Beth Tondreau
Grids and layout are closely tied to the effective use of white space. This book delves into the principles of layout design, providing insights into how to structure content for optimal visual appeal.
3. "The Non-Designer's Design Book" by Robin Williams
Williams' book is a friendly guide for non-designers, covering fundamental design principles. It includes discussions on white space and its role in creating well-balanced and visually pleasing designs.
1. Interaction Design Foundation - Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide
Description: This comprehensive course covers various aspects of visual design, including the use of white space. It's suitable for both beginners and experienced designers and guides students on how to use the right amount of white space in website design and more to improve visual hierarchy, make text easier to read, and more.
2. A List Apart - "On Web Typography" by Jason Santa Maria
URL: On Web Typography
Description: Jason Santa Maria's article on A List Apart delves into the intricacies of web typography, with insights into how white space contributes to effective typography.
3. Creative Bloq - "The importance of whitespace in web design"
Description: Creative Bloq's article explores the importance of white space in design, providing examples and tips for designers to make the most of this crucial design element.
4. Smashing Magazine - “How To Use Spaces In Web Design With Gestalt Principles”
Description: Smashing Magazine's article covers the relationship between positive and negative space, the connection between spaces and cognitive perception, and the Gestalt principles and their implication in web design, as well as many other insights.
Here’s the entire UX literature on Negative Space by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Negative Space with our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide .
In this course, you will gain a holistic understanding of visual design and increase your knowledge of visual principles, color theory, typography, grid systems and history. You’ll also learn why visual design is so important, how history influences the present, and practical applications to improve your own work. These insights will help you to achieve the best possible user experience.
In the first lesson, you’ll learn the difference between visual design elements and visual design principles. You’ll also learn how to effectively use visual design elements and principles by deconstructing several well-known designs.
In the second lesson, you’ll learn about the science and importance of color. You’ll gain a better understanding of color modes, color schemes and color systems. You’ll also learn how to confidently use color by understanding its cultural symbolism and context of use.
In the third lesson, you’ll learn best practices for designing with type and how to effectively use type for communication. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the anatomy of type, type classifications, type styles and typographic terms. You’ll also learn practical tips for selecting a typeface, when to mix typefaces and how to talk type with fellow designers.
In the final lesson, you’ll learn about grid systems and their importance in providing structure within design. You’ll also learn about the types of grid systems and how to effectively use grids to improve your work.
You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design Emeritus at RIT R. Roger Remington, author of “American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960”; Co-founder of The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and leading color consultant Joann Eckstut, co-authors of “What Is Color?” and “The Secret Language of Color”; Award-winning designer and educator Mia Cinelli, TEDx speaker of “The Power of Typography”; Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA Ellen Lupton, author of “Thinking with Type”; Chair of the Graphic + Interactive communication department at the Ringling School of Art and Design Kimberly Elam, author of "Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type.”
Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can go right out and use what you learn in your everyday practice.
In the “Build Your Portfolio Project: Redesign,” you’ll find a series of fun exercises that build upon one another and cover the visual design topics discussed. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.
You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.
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