Embrace negative space

Embrace negative space

Morgan Smith's Layout avatar

Too often I see good design ruined by bad spacing. Elements get lost in the crowd, and instead of having an awesome visual impact, the final product is messy and underwhelming.

There’s a very simple concept that solves this problem, but for some reason it’s terribly difficult to execute well: the use of negative space. You know, that empty space around your work that you always feel tempted to add things to? Stop adding things to it.

Negative space helps direct the eye to your real content. If you have elements crowded on top of each other, they begin to blur into one object. This hinders readability, and it takes longer for people to pick out the important content.

Let’s look at how negative space plays into layout design.

The site on the left is attempting to cram things next to each other while the one on the right is leaving some breathing room between elements. Doesn’t the left image stress you out a little bit? There’s too much happening in a small space. It’s not readable, it’s not welcoming, and it’s just not good work.

When elements crowd each other, as in the left image, a sense of hierarchy gets lost. The elements relate to each other in a bad way – they blend into one continuous blob of information. Every element — image, titles, text — seems to have the same level of importance, so wandering eyes may not focus on the most critical information.

In fact, let’s take a closer look at that text.


The left side has small kerning and leading values — ie, much less space in between both the letters themselves and each line of text. The text on the right side has higher kerning and leading values, which opens up the text and creates much more negative space.

Notice how much easier it is to read the text on the right? The negative space helps focus a reader’s eyes on the letterforms, instead of getting lost in the blur of the text on the left. The negative space acts as part of the design, enhancing the text and making it more readable.

Unfortunately, too many people think of negative as simply space that’s lacking in design. They try to fill it with unnecessary elements, which results in the crowded, poor designs seen on the left-hand side of these images. It’s hard to know when to stop creating things and just leave it alone instead.


Start thinking of negative space as part of your design. Surely you’ve seen logos that utilize negative space; now do that with the rest of your design. The space you leave open is just as important as any physical element you add to your work.

Embrace negative space as a visual element and leave it alone. Remember, an empty space in a finished design doesn’t mean you couldn’t figure out what to do with that area. It’s space you’re thoughtfully using to emphasize your true content.

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