August 31st, 2011
Finding Value in Negative Space
During a recent trip to visit my family, I had an interesting conversation with my brother about an optical illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle.
The illusion is simple enough – the negative space between the inward-pointing fragments creates the illusory contours of a triangle. In other words, your mind perceives a white triangle, when in reality there isn’t one.
A fun trick for the eyes, no doubt, but it also lends itself to something greater. It works as a visual metaphor for the way ideas take shape. We see this all the time in design. Rather than producing something outright and then defining its purpose retroactively, the best artists, inventors, and strategists look to the negative space between existing ideas to inform their craft – this way it fills a need in the most effective way possible.
It’s a bit like evolution. Nature doesn’t set out to take a specific shape, but instead it adapts to occupy its constraints – expanding along the contours of potential and circumstance. Life sees the negative space as opportunity.
So it’s an interesting lens to hold up to the design process. We locate a void within business or culture, then we do our best to accommodate it. Like water, it takes the shape of its container. It follows the path of least resistance. Whether you’re speaking about new social platforms, product development, or creative work as a whole – at some level everything is derivative. Everything is a remix.
We often fixate on what we think shouldcome next, while neglecting to look at current models to guide our solutions. By considering the space that surrounds existing ideas, we are able to create room for new ideas to emerge.