Using Negative Space in Web Design
Negative space is a powerful feature of design. While often attributed to minimalist design and the “less is more” mindset, negative space is an important aspect of all design.
Negative Space vs. White Space
Negative space and white space are the same. The term “white space” originated with printers. White paper is most often used in the printing process and so the space on the page that was not printed upon became known as white space.
The term negative space is more inclusive of color foundations other than white, but means essentially the same thing. Referring to the space between objects arranged on a black canvas as negative space or white space would be equally correct.
Micro and Macro Negative Space
Negative space is commonly separated into two categories: micro and macro. Micro negative space is the space between smaller elements in a design; macro is the space between larger elements.
Using web design as an example, we can see micro negative space evident in line height, margins, and padding — shown below in blue. We see macro negative space in web design between elements like headers, search fields, and content — shown below in red.
Macro negative space creates a structured order to a site ,while micro increases both readability and usability.
Minimalism and the Purpose of Negative Space
Design minimalism is the practice of using the least to say the most. Because of this, minimalist designs employ extensive negative space, which draws attention to the few elements still being displayed. In this way, negative space is often linked exclusively with minimalist design.
As we saw in the example above, it is nearly impossible to design anything — especially websites — without some amount of negative space. It should be used to emphasize specific elements of a design by creating a balance between the other present elements and leading the eye towards important information.
Consider the use of negative space on your own website. How do you utilize negative space to draw attention to certain products or services? Is your email subscription form buried beneath less important information? Are the most important elements of your site indistinguishable because they have little surrounding negative space?
Balance and Practical Application
It is easy to overuse negative space. Negative space is about balance. You should not completely isolate your email subscription form — or any other design element — at the expense of the rest of your site. Ecommerce sites in particular have lots of content to organize and present. The purpose of negative space is not to completely eliminate some elements and glorify others, but rather to strike an appropriate balance between all design elements. This balance will depend very much on how much content you have to deal with.
Negative space should be consistently used. This would include using consistent line spacing, letter spacing, margins, and padding for micro negative space and using consistent spacing between larger design elements for macro negative space.
Examples of Negative Space in Web Design
Here are a three websites that understand and take advantage of negative space.
Google is famous for its use of negative space, where it emphasizes its principal purpose: search.
The Apple site is a classic example of negative space. Bordering on minimalism, Apple has all of its larger design elements nicely spaced, making it easy for visitors to find what they are looking for. Interestingly, Apple’s physical retail stores use negative space, too.
I have always admired the Icon Dock site for its colorful design and use of negative space. Notice how everything is neatly organized and the text is properly spaced and easy to read.
Negative space is important in design. But it should not be used to rule your entire site or to make a single element obnoxious. Negative space is about balance, providing places for the eye to rest, and creating a visual hierarchy.