Elements of Design – Space


Space is the interval of distance or area around or between objects. Space on a page is 2 dimensional, but 3 dimensional space can be implied by overlapping elements, changes in size, using perspective, using diagonals or using color and tones. Space contains background, middle ground and foreground. One can perceive space as positive (figure) or negative (ground) depending on its use.

In relation to the Elements of Design, positive space describes the object or subject within the frame. Negative space describes the area around the object or what remains.  Space also refers to the area that a form or shape contains.  Use of space is most recognizable in 3 dimensional objects including sculpture.


In the image above, the positive space is the blue squares or figure, the negative space is the dark orange ground. The space an object appears to reside in can be influenced by its placement within the frame. An object placed higher in the frame appears to reside farther from the viewer than an object near the bottom of the frame. In a case like that, the brain creates its own perspective accepting the higher object as more distant.

Title unknown

Title unknown

Image Source

In this image by Paul Stand, title unknown, we see effective and expressive use of space. If you first view the image as an abstract, the dominant feature in this image is the flat expanse of water stretching into the distance, filling nearly 2/3 of the frame. By focusing on the water, and not the trees, the water and fog appear as a higher-valued (lighter toned) figure or positive space. This allows the brain to see the image as an abstract of darks and light and makes for an interesting tone map.If you find it difficult to perceive the image in this way try squinting your eyes until they are about ½ closed. By removing the detail, the forms, tones, shapes and spaces become more apparent. You can use this technique with most any image. I have also included a tone map of the image just below. The tone map, by itself, is interesting enough, visually, to use as an illustration.

Viewing the Strand image by focusing on the trees and spit of land create a more literal reading of the image and enhance the sense of place and time. The bases of the trees are flooded and convey a sense of isolation and vulnerability within the expanse of the water. By placing the trees to the far left of the frame, Strand has isolated them in their space, further affecting the impact. This impact would have been greatly reduced had he included more land to the left or less water in the fore ground.

Space as we can now see has expressive qualities that enhance our purposes.

Using small spaces between objects can connect them through proximity.
Surrounding an object with lots of blank space or white areas will draw attention to the object.
Overlapped objects or perspective creates a depth of space.
Unequal spacing between similar objects is more dynamic than regimented grouping.
Blank spaces or white areas also create a visual place of rest for the eyes, just as rest intervals in music are the quiet intervals in between notes.

It should be evident by now that most of these elements of design, and the Gestalt elements, do not singularly occur on their own. In most images, you will observe multiple elements at work in concert with one another. This means that attempting to create an image based solely on any one element will be next to impossible.

Next Time: Elements of Design – Value and Texture

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.