29 July 2015

Zen and the art of negative space

literature, philosophy, design philosophy, graphic design, negative space, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
I was recently gifted one of my many must-reads-but-somehow-never have-dones: Robert Persig's seminal Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This chunk of 70s popular philosophy is such a cornerstone of modern culture I probably don't need to tell you it's good. That might be like telling you Elton John is a popular singer/songwriter or vitamin C helps prevent colds.

One particular passage in it really caught my attention, where The Narrator talks about his shared motorcycle road trip with his son Chris and their friends John and Sylvia:
"In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, 'See? ... See?' and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent."

It resonates not just because it's a nice little philosophical truism, but also because it's a nice little design truism. A perfect metaphor for the age-old designer/client stumbling block: we want less, they want more. Persig's observation reminded  me of something John Maeda wrote in his brilliantly succinct Laws of Simplicity. Law 6 / Context: nothing is something.
"If given an empty space or any extra room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, business people would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity. 
On the other hand, a designer would choose to do their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. More white space means that less information is presented. In turn, proportionately more attention shall be paid to that which is made less available. When there is less, we appreciate everything much more."

It's a perfectly rationalised 'less is more' counter to the classic design misstep of filling in all your negative space, and offers the perfect maxim every designer should keep in their back pocket; nothing is an important something.