Friday, June 17, 2011

Negative Space

In art, negative space is an important yet occasionally overlooked concept. There are a couple different types of negative space. If you google the term, the results are mostly all types of silhouettes, where an object doesn't actually appear in the image at all. What is missing is what you're supposed to actually see. An example of this is the arrow in the FedEx logo. What arrow, you ask? Well, go look real quick, and then come back. ... Pretty cool, eh? The silhouette walking across the street here is another more obvious example.

The other type of negative space is a type of balance or contrast to the focus of the piece, also apparent in the photo of the sign pictured above (which iboy_daniel was so gracious to share with an open license). The same picture taken head on would simply not be as interesting. Negative space used this way adds a level of depth that is missing otherwise. The divine proportion and rule of thirds are related to the concept of negative space.

In images with a lot going on, photographers will often use a large aperture, resulting in a shallow depth of field, meaning that only a small range of the picture is in focus. This artistic blurring of the foreground and background is negative space that makes the pieces that are in focus almost pop out at the viewer. The out of focus elements are important because of the context they provide to the in focus elements.

In a recent conversation with a former employee of mine, we got to talking about the importance of negative space in the workplace, although we didn't call it that at the time. It's the idea that time spent sitting around talking, grabbing a cup of coffee, running to the break room to play ping pong, going to lunch together, or otherwise spending time together not immediately engaged in "work" is an important aspect of the workplace.

An article in the paper about a team running the Ragnar Wasatch Back Relay, which happens to have started today, points out this same concept. A business sponsored a team a few years ago for the 200 mile 12 person relay race through the mountains and found clear benefits in the way of increased collaboration and connections among employees back at the office long after the race ended, so they've continued doing it.

Being able to step away momentarily from the task at hand to do something that doesn't really matter helps increase focus on important issues upon returning to work. These important issues are often lost if taken on too directly with nowhere to allow the eyes or mind to rest. Of course unrealistic deadlines, high travel costs, juggling multiple projects, and other factors can make such downtime seemingly difficult to fit in. It doesn't have to be huge, though, and probably shouldn't be. Care does need to be taken to ensure the focus isn't moved off what is important and onto elements that should be in the background.

In virtual teams, instant messaging can provide some of the same downtime to a limited extent, but getting together in the same physical location occasionally can do wonders to reinvigorate a project or team that is suffering from lack of contact. Whether or not the in-person time is "productive", it can help remind everyone of the importance of their piece in relation to the big goal and that there are real people receiving their submissions on the other end of the line.

I often practice a negative space technique when working on a paper or presentation. A month or two out I'll review the requirements and read some related articles or books but not write anything. A week or two goes by, and I'll put together a basic outline of what I'm going to write or talk about. I'll sit on it for another week, while in the back of my mind I'm thinking of stories, articles, events, theories, videos, and all sorts of related issues. This cycle progresses until it's relatively close to the time of submission/presentation, depending on its size and importance. When I do sit down to knock it out, the whole thing flows from my fingertips in a way that was not possible the month or two prior, because of the downtime I'd had to process it.

I always did like it at the moving company I used to work for when the person over our crew on any given day was a smoker; it meant we would get a 10 minute break every hour instead of one 15 minute break every four hours. The focus there was always on when the next break was coming. Everyone filed out of the warehouse like kids following an ice cream truck when the snack truck would pull into the parking lot every morning and save us all if he was ever late. At a physically demanding job, that negative space is closely guarded and for good reason, but at white collar jobs it can be easy to forget or to spend your downtime alone.

So be positive. But don't forget about the negative.

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