Negative Space Is A Positive Thing

“It weighs, therefore it is.” – on the study of carbon dioxide by Joseph Black (c. 1756)

I’m currently reading The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. It’s about the life, work, beliefs, time, and impact of Joseph Priestley – an 18th century scientist and theologian. With his life’s work, Priestley can be credited with enabling what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He did this through transparency of his experiments, thoughts, and findings, and the creation of information networks similar to the coffee shops and online forums we see today.

What I find very interesting about Priestley’s work was that he was interested in negative space – the ether surrounding the things we see and touch and feel. Although physically clear, air’s purpose and nature were not. It was not until Priestley questioned the negative space of Earth that the human race began to fully grasp the purposes of plant life, respiration, and chemistry.

Aside from with air, negative space can be found in every subject in all throughout history. In art it’s a resting place for the eye in a painting or photo. In music, it’s a purposeful section of silence. In science, it was the hypothetical medium through which electromagnetic waves travel. In Taoism is was the inaction that served more purpose than action.

Negative space is more representative than anything. It’s the unclear existences, the non-obvious relationships – that which eludes the immediate naked eye. But when sought after, the negative space provides power and energy. It shifts science into new paradigms, pushes art into new dimensions, and builds new meaning from otherwise empty space.

We should continuously embrace the negative space and utilize it for the power and meaning it can hold. Whether in a logo, painting, thought, vision, scene, or air we breathe, it’s often the negative space that brings us life.