fill up a place, which may be better … when I
have made it empty. – William Shakespeare
(1564–1616), As You Like It
Emptiness is an essential aspect of life. It is the unavoidable opposite of fullness, of busyness, of activity. It is the natural and universally present background to everything we see. Emptiness is silence, an open ﬁeld, a barren room, a blank canvas, an empty page. Emptiness is often taken for granted and thought best used by ﬁlling in. It is generally ignored by all but the few who consciously manipulate it to establish contrast, to create drama, or to provide a place of actual or visual rest. It is best used as counterpoint to ﬁlled-in space. Composers and architects use it. Painters, photographers, and sculptors use it. And designers use it. The most important step toward sensitizing yourself to using space is ﬁrst seeing it. Gregg Berryman writes in his Notes on Graphic Design and Visual Communication, “Everyone ‘looks’ at things but very few people ‘see’ effectively. Designers must be able to see. Seeing means a trained super-awareness of visual codes like shape, color, texture, pattern, and contrast. These codes make a language of vision, much as words are building blocks for verbal language.” Being trained to see more critically is best guided by a teacher, but such training relies on exposure to excellent art and design samples.
The figure/ground relationship
The single most overlooked element in visual design is emptiness. The lack of attention it receives explains the abundance of ugly and unread design. (Ugly and unread describe two separate functions of design which occasionally occur at the same time. Ugly refers to an object’s aesthetic qualities, an evaluation of whether we like the object. Unread is inﬁnitely more important, because an unread design is an utter failure. A printed document, regardless of its purpose or attributes, is never intended to be ignored.) Design elements are always viewed in relation to their surroundings. Emptiness in two-dimensional design is called white space and lies behind the type and imagery. But it is more than just the background of a design, for if a design’s background alone were properly constructed, the overall design would immediately double in clarity and usefulness. Thus, when it is used intriguingly, white space becomes foreground. The emptiness becomes a positive shape and the positive and negative areas become intricately linked.