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How to Use Negative Space to Improve Your Advertising

by | Aug 2, 2010

What’s the biggest mistake you can make when designing an advertisement for your business? Over-stuffing. Oh, you know what I’m talking about. If the last ad you produced was packed like a suitcase on a 3-week safari, then you’re guilty as charged. But relief is on the way. I’m going to give you one simple tip that will improve your D.I.Y. design skills overnight.

Focus on the Negative

Negative space, that is. Also referred to as “white space” it’s the empty space in your design. The area that surrounds the important copy, image or logo. Negative space allows the eyes to rest, focuses on the message and improves retention.

Imagine a garden that’s planted so snug that every flower is straining for light, food and water, and no one notices their individual beauty. Or, perhaps you can relate to a closet so full of clothes, purses and shoes that you can never find anything to wear. Why? Because there’s not a square inch of space that hasn’t been filled with clutter.

Like a garden, or a closet, our ideas need breathing room. If you clear away the extraneous debris, and unnecessary information, the concepts we’re trying to express come into focus. In advertising, negative space is that solution.

What’s so important about Negative Space in advertising?

As a designer it’s all about building a balanced composition. Like ying and yang, the negative space helps to balance the positive. For the advertiser that means drawing attention to the ad’s message. And for the reader it’s welcome relief from all the action on the page. Which is a bonus for you if they’re resting their eyes on your products now isn’t it?

When you’re designing a display ad, short TV spot, even a website, it’s easy to start filling every inch of space with information. Logos, address, phone number, email, website, free offer, taglines…STOP. Even this list is boring to read.

I can see your eyes widen in disbelief, like looking in the mirror when you first wake up. It’s not a pretty picture, but you recognize the reflection. That’s OK. We’re going to fix it.

How to use Negative Space to Improve your Advertising

1. Choose a Focal Point: Select a singular focus for each ad or promotional piece to ensure your reader gets the point without a lot of confusion. Just because you have a fax number and a twitter ID doesn’t mean it needs to appear on every piece you create.

It’s important to remember this: one ad can’t be all things to all people. That’s why there are thousands of opportunities to engage your target market.

An ad in a local magazine or newspaper should focus on their readers and what your business can do for them today. It doesn’t matter that you have 15 locations world-wide and are open 7 days a week if you’re promoting a One-Day In-Store Sale. One ad = one relevant subject, period.

“It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

2. Let it Breathe: I realize that ad space is valuable, and often paid for by the inch. So why should you leave that space blank instead of loading it with information? To punctuate your message. A little breathing room around that Special Offer or perfect product shot gives you the super power of controlling the readers eyes. Magically their focus is drawn to your message. And without the extra distractions, your message gets top priority in their memory.

Have you ever noticed it’s much easier to remember a telephone number you just heard than, say, a 10-digit bank account number? That’s because our short-term memory uses a technique called “chunking” to make it easier to recall long bits of data. This works in advertising too. When you insert negative space into your ad it breaks up the message into manageable chunks which are easier to remember. Business identity, focal point, contact info. Enough said.

So how do you know this technique works?

Got Milk ad image

Got Milk Campaign (copyright 2009

Consider some of the most successful national ad campaigns as an example. Got Milk? The message is simple. One photographic subject, one headline and a short bite of copy. They’re paying for a full page color ad, when the content could fit on a quarter-page. But without the negative space around the actor it wouldn’t be as effective.

Or how about the power of the Nike “Just Do It” ads. All the drama of action-packed sports is captured in a freeze-frame image of one athlete mid-air with the phrase, Just Do It and the signature swoosh. The negative space doesn’t always have to be “white,” it just has to be plain. You want the subject to be more memorable than the background.

Now that you know what I’m talking about you’ll start to notice these ads jumping off the page when you’re reading a magazine. And with the steps above you’ll be able to transform your advertising into attention grabbing masterpieces too.

As they say, sometimes less is more. And when it comes to ad design it’s OK to focus on the negative…space that is.


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About the Author

Brandy Wheeler

Brandy Wheeler is the Creative Director and right-brained partner at Visitors Media. She’s a pysanky-making figure skater with a knack for finding Petoskey stones at the beach. Armed with an Albion College degree in visual art and 25 years of experience in graphic design and marketing she loves to share her expertise in writing. You can also find her on-camera as the founder and voice of the Traverse Traveler brand.

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