Negative Space in your Designs

Carl Barnhill

*This article first appeared on on August 5, 2015. Check out the original article here.

With any project, it can be much more powerful to leave things out rather than keep everything in.


Let’s think about some of the most recognizable brands in our culture today. Brands like FedEx, Nike, and Apple keep their designs extremely clean and simple. In these designs, what isn’t there is just as important as what is.

When designing art, what isn’t there is just as important as what is.

Without the ‘negative space’ in these designs, they would not be the recognizable brands they are today. Think about it:,The Nike swoosh and the Apple icon is all you need to see to know these brands. The design doesn’t even need the ‘Nike’ or ‘Apple’ name on it for us to know what the company is and what they stand for.

Sometimes ‘negative space’ can actually help your design be simpler, cleaner and more effective.

This can be true for any creative art form: graphic design, video, motion graphics, audio, lighting, or even stage design.

When designing your next project, consider these three filters:

1. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should use it.

We all know that just because your software comes loaded with tons of bells and whistles, doesn’t mean you need to use them.

I started my career over 10 years ago editing a television program on an Avid system. I’ve also produced projects using Final Cut and all Adobe Products. I live in After Effects and a few other programs every day. I literally do not use 50% of the effects, transitions, and other tools that are built-in to these programs. It’s not because I don’t know what they are or what they do, it’s because my projects would not benefit from their use.

The same is true for your design, lighting, stage design, and video projects. Just because your gear has a tool doesn’t necessarily mean you should use it.

So how do you know which tools to use and or not to use?

Most of this comes with experience. The longer you’re in your field, the more you know if an aspect of design is an industry standard or a trend. As you learn, watch other designers. Watch network television. Look at the designs of top professionals in your field. Look not only at their designs, but also their process and the tools they are using to create their project.

Every tool in your toolbox doesn’t necessarily need to be used. Your designs can be more powerful without them.

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2. The simpler the design, the more application it can have.

If your design is filled with thin lines or image heavy elements, its effectiveness on promotional materials, clothing, and other applications can be limited.

For example, if your design is going to be used on apparel, you want to consider the number of colors in your design and what that will mean in printing costs. Or if your design is going to be seen primarily on screens and devices, you want to be mindful of thin lines or colors you use as they may appear different on your monitor than other screens or devices.

If you keep your designs simple, they can have more application.

3. It can take more creativity to be simple than to be complex.

There can be a misconception that more is better—more shots, more effects, more sequences must make us look more professional or more creative.

I’ve learned over the years that it can take more creativity to be simple than to be complex.

I’ve produced countless testimonial videos where one of the biggest challenges was to cut stories down to under two minutes. The easier route would’ve been to let the piece be longer and leave blocks of the interview in. The real creativity happened under the B-Roll—where I had to have the story not only make sense, but also remain compelling.

I’ve learned it can be better for the project to leave stuff out rather than keep everything in.

Suggested Tweet: "If you keep your designs simple, they can have more application. @carlbarnhill"

I love watching the deleted scenes from movies. Especially when there is a director’s commentary. I remember one scene: A director was explaining that the crew spent all day getting a particular shot, and that it was one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie and his favorite. Yet, here it was in the deleted scenes. The director explained that in the end, the scene just didn’t move the story forward. The movie was better without it.

Did you know it’s common for a motion picture to have about a 20:1 ratio—for one minute of footage there can be 20 minutes or more of unused footage? So, for every sixty seconds of footage you see in movies, there is 20 minutes of footage you don’t see that ends up on the cutting room floor.

Sometimes your production, your project, your design would be better if you left some stuff out.

Design your project. Then ask yourself what is necessary and what is not.

Use the ‘negative space’ in your designs. Cut stuff out. Your project may be more compelling without it.

About Carl Barnhill

Owner, Church Visuals

Carl Barnhill is a creative entrepreneur, motion designer and author. He is the Owner Church Visuals, a company that helps Ministry Leaders visually communicate the Gospel. He is the host of the Your Visuals Matter Podcast. You can find him in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife, Katie and two sons, Jacob and Wesley.

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