A road sign is an example of communication through visual literacy.


Everything you see can be classified by its positive and negative space. Visual literacy is the study of how those spaces interact and form a visual language. The interplay of positive and negative space is essential to diverse fields such as fine art, commercial media and legaldefense. Effective graphic design drives greater attention and comprehension. The explosive growth of the Internet and online media has driven a corresponding increase in the interest in and use of visual literacy.

  1. Definitions

    • The white, or negative, space pierces this object.

      Visual language can be used to communicate with others. Within a visual message, two spaces exist: positive and negative. Positive space refers to the subject or object being observed. Negative space is any space not defined by the subject, such as the space surrounding the subject or space piercing the subject. For example, in the image of a sculpture of two people holding hands, the white space includes the space between the two people as well as the space surrounding the two people.


    • White space in the sky is reflected in the water creating a semi-circular shape.

      In traditional black and white photography, the subject is a positive image rendered in black. The space surrounding the subject where nothing is printed is white and referred to as negative space. These two-dimensional definitions also apply to a three-dimensional object. The subject is still the positive space. Whatever surrounds it is defined as the negative space. Artists may use negative space to emphasize a point or echo a theme articulated by the subject of the positive space. In the black and white photo of water and sky, the negative space creates a semi-circle. This visual metaphor reminds the viewer of the sun, which is obscured behind the clouds in the photo. Many pieces of visual art contain these deeper levels of interplay between positive and negative space.


    • This glass skyscraper was designed using a fixed mathematical ratio.

      The ratio of positive to negative space has always been a consideration in visual communication. In fine art, architecture and graphic design, artists often seek to preserve a fixed ratio between the positive and negative space. These ratios are derived from mathematical proportions such as Equality (1:1) or the Golden Ratio (1:1.6180339887) and result in more appealing designs.


    • Visualization of the penicillin molecule in which the black background represents the negative space

      Visual literacy and the effective use of negative and positive space have moved far beyond fine art and architecture. Traditional print-only mediums, such as newspapers and books, have always optimized the ratio of printed words to white space to make reading easier. Online media uses market research and testing to optimize websites' visual appeal. Professions as diverse as law and medicine have also recognized that balancing visual space is crucial to effective communication.

updated June 07, 2011

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