Unveiling the genius in negative space

Most of what we see are objects that occupy space, from the cup of coffee in your hand to the trees and buildings lining the street. We are surrounded by configurations of matter that pierce reality and comprise positive space. Not “positive” in the good sense of the word, but as yang is to yin: the opposite of the void that is negative space.

It is through this shadowy emptiness that we walk, talk, see, and live; negative space is the impossible cellophane layer that drapes the known world and is invisible to all but to the most perceptive minds.

It is possible to learn to see negative space though, in both the visual and imagined worlds. The first step is developing the ability to see, and the second is learning — as romantic poet John Keats put it — to be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

When I first learned to draw, I was taught about foreground and background shapes, perspective and foreshortening. I learned how parallax reveals relative positioning, and object clarity suggests proximity. Critically, I learned the many tricks that my mind employs to interpret the data streams that my eyes produce. In so doing, I began to sense how far my mind goes to force things to make sense, even when they really shouldn’t.

Take this image for example:

Scintillating grid illusion

How many black dots do you see?

The answer is… none! But how many does your mind see? Ah, many more, right? Your mind wants to fill in those gaps with information that isn’t there, creating a pulsating illusion as it struggles between visual fact and fiction.

Here’s another:

Contour illusion. Source: The Guardian

See the cube? Once again, your brain is filling in for information that it thinks should be there. It’s spinning negative space to force what you’re seeing to conform to patterns it expects, rather than being open and agnostic towards what’s really there.

And so learning to draw well isn’t merely about recording what your brain tells you you’re seeing — it’s about capturing what’s really there, devoid of any self-sourced illusory distortion.

The trick is learning to see holistically, identifying the shapes that occupy positive space and those left by their absence.

Mastery brings the ability to move effortlessly between these two planes. Your ego’s desire to force conformity to known patterns diminishes, and you can see things clearly, without corruption.

Developing visual acuity suggests that similar enhancements exist in perceiving reality. Consider that most of us spend our thinking power interpreting and judging the “positive space” of thoughts and ideas — those which are salient, familiar, and easy to grasp. But what about the inverse? Couldn’t there be a negative space for our thoughts as well? I should say so! Thinking about the ideas of negative space opens up new understanding of the world and reveals opportunities that others won’t — or can’t — see. This is the stuff of moonshot thinking!

Let me give you a concrete example of the kind of intellectual gymnastics I’m talking about. Consider Monument Valley, a beautiful iOS and Android game based on the work of M.C. Escher. Gameplay largely consists of solving visual puzzles based on impossible geometry — traversing and connecting architectural structures that our eyes tell us can’t exist, but that nonetheless do within the game world. If you let your ego insist on the impossibility of the scenes, you’d fail. To make progress, you must be able to alternate between the logical and the absurd seamlessly and effortlessly. Nothing is as it seems; everything is as you allow it to be.

Extend this to the real world. Could you explain the sharing economy to someone 20 years ago? They’d think you were crazy, or that the communists had won. And yet we are living with Ubers and Airbnbs and coworking spaces, and take their existence for granted. If this economic phenomenon was unintuitive and unlikely two decades ago, how is it that we’re now able to describe (with a good degree of clarity) what’s driving this innovation?

This is where I turn to Alan Watts’s “Grid of Words”.

Imagine a sheet of lined graph paper, where every intersection between a horizontal and vertical line represents a word in human language. Now, this sheet of paper would be quite enormous and go on for some indefinite measure, but despite the innumerable number of intersections representing words, there’s actually far more space in between the lines and intersections. This is the realm known as the “wordless plane”, and is where boundless opportunities exist for expanding consciousness and conjuring up new terminology, like the “sharing economy”.

So why did we lack the words to describe the sharing economy previously? Well, if you consider that most of the economic activity in the 20th century was predicated on overcoming scarcity and driving to accumulate wealth, it’s obvious that “sharing” wasn’t part of the game. With the advent of modern communication infrastructure (like the Internet) in the 21st century, scarcity is no longer the singular driving force that determines how we approach work, life, or economic activity. Many of us experience abundance, with access to resources beyond what we need individually. We can share our abundance with others, and in turn, benefit from that sharing. Though this requires a leap of faith and trust, persistent Internet identity allows us to evaluate the reputation of those with whom we might share. But all of this context is meaningless without the ability to see beyond the conventional stereotypes that accompany housing, transportation, and workplaces. You can stare at the positive space occupied by the hotel or taxi industries and scratch your head about how to compete with them, or you look to the negative space —and discover a latent willingness of people to drive other people around, or let strangers stay in their houses while they’re out of town.

The ability to see and describe phenomena in the negative spaces is hugely advantageous, and requires courage and determination. Think of Steve Jobs’s bet on the iPhone, or Elon Musk’s yet-to-be-realized Hyperloop. These are examples of leaders who, versed in the contours of known industries, can occupy the negative space of the possible, and reach out and pull new realities into being.

Seeing the genius in negative space takes practice and effort, but with time, anyone can do it. Here are nine things to get you started:

  1. Be deeply curious about the world around you.
  2. Become aware of your thoughts and learn to think about thinking. Practicing metacognition will help develop a sense for the tricks your mind plays, and how to overcome them.
  3. With this awareness, learn to overcome automatic processing. When confronted with something new or unfamiliar, withhold judgment; if you see something you don’t understand in the negative space, go with it and see where it leads. Remember that impossible geometry exists, and your mind is constantly trying to force you to see things that you already know how to see. It’s learning to see the unseen that makes this practice valuable!
  4. Be aware of the limitations of the labels that have been applied to the world. Keep in mind how small the grid of words is compared to the wordless plane. Opportunity exists where words don’t exist, yet.
  5. Learn to sit with Keats in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without grasping for conventional explanations. Allow time to visit the fantastic and the unconventional, and become aware of the moments when you’re avoiding staying in these contexts. Meditation can be essential here.
  6. Once you’ve discovered something in the negative space, use narrative to bridge the well-known with the unfamiliar. This is critical to helping others see the opportunities that you see.
  7. Be persistent, and be contrarian. Learning to see the unseen is a personal skill, and getting others to share your vision is a longer term project. You must be willing to hold on to your vision, even when others struggle or refuse to see it.
  8. That said, be polite and patient. Time is relative; if you can convince people to see the world as you do, then anything is possible. It just may not happen immediately.
  9. Don’t let fear or insecurity drag you down. People avoid the negative space for a reason.

These aren’t the only ways to acquire new ways to see and think with greater awareness and depth, but they may help get you started.


I’ve recorded a narration of this piece if you you’d like to listen to it. This piece has been reprinted (with permission) by the Washington Post.

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