In praise of negative space

During the public forum I helped coordinate last week with my American University colleagues and the National Endowment for the Arts (archived video available here), panelist Shahin Shikhaliyev said something that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. Shahin is a visual artist and a drawing teacher, among many other things, and was talking about how learning to draw requires you to learn how to see. For example, when you’re drawing something, you must also learn to observe the space around it. The objects, and the space between the objects, are equally important.

We often label this “space between” as “negative space.” But it’s only negative because it’s not the thing we think we’re drawing.

Today, through a cascade of web links, I stumbled onto the work of designer Branko Lukic, founder of the design firm NONOBJECT, and co-author of a book by the same name. Lukic’s design philosophy?

Nonobject is an approach to design that begins neither with the product nor with the person using it but in the charged space in between.

The book is brilliant, and whimsical, and brain-bending, and I devoured it in a single sitting (lots of pictures). It offers a series of product and conceptual designs that don’t (and often can’t) exist, but that challenge us to rethink our relationship to things, to each other, and to the world. An umbrella that doesn’t block the rain, but captures it and carries it through the handle to the ground beneath you. A camera that not only takes the image in front of you (the object of your focus), but also a simultaneous view of the scene behind (what you didn’t see while you were focusing forward). Here are just a few to savor.

Lukic argues that our long tradition of object-focused design leads us to overemphasize a narrow set of features, and to make incremental improvements that offer diminishing depth and meaning (more megapixels, more bandwidth, more laser-perfect surfaces, more variations on a theme). For him, the opportunity for deeper meaning lies between the object and its user, or between a person and their world.

What struck me in both of these narratives (of course) was their analog in the life of a cultural manager. We invest sweat and contributed income to build ever-more technically effective cultural environments. We request grants and huddle in the marketing office to explore the needs of the audience, and how to make them feel more welcome and connected to these machines of cultural production. We make continual, incremental improvements in our policies and processes that don’t look radically different than the practices of five decades ago.

Instead, what if we considered ourselves designers of the space between? Between a person and an extraordinary act of expression. Between a creative collective and the witnesses that bring their work meaning. Between people in that electric moment when it’s hard to know who is creating and who is receiving.

Samuel Beckett suggested once that “All art is the same – an attempt to fill an empty space.”

Debussy famously said that “Music lies in the space between the notes.”

What if our work across every function of the artistic enterprise embraced that space as the object of our attention and our intent? It’s certainly not negative space. It’s full of potential energy.


  1. says

    As an organization whose mission is to gift space and unstructured time to artists, I couldn’t agree more. But making the case to cultural funders in this era of “community engagement” is a challenge.

  2. says

    Thanks for this Andrew, and for including me in the event!

    When I helped Eric Forbis and Gabriel Riera plan and design the first BuddhaFest in DC, I spent a lot of time thinking about the ticket booth, book sales, and lobby as very important space, specifically because it was immediately adjacent the main event in the theatre. If we were trying make space for people to have transformative experiences inside the theatre, what we were doing just before or just after to support this aim? For me, that was a kind of negative space thinking that helped me find a deeper purpose for the front of house tasks we all know and love.

    In that example, many folks wanted to be engaged in mindful conversations before and after. They wanted to hang around and discuss the film or teaching. Volunteer management ended up being the most critical factor in shaping the environment we wanted. When the volunteers tuned in to the audience on that level, they were able to meet that higher need and still get the technical event work accomplished.

  3. says

    Rainer Maria Rilke knew a lot about this too. This from Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: “… once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!”

    Thanks, Andrew. As always