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Principles of design and animation, part 3: Space

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

So far, we’ve looked at how different shapes, and their sizes, can communicate various messages in design. However, these shapes can’t exist without somewhere to put them. Where an object is positioned in space, the space between objects, and how an object interacts with its surrounding space all have just as much ability to communicate as the objects themselves.

The surface on which objects are placed is often referred to as the “plane”. This could be a web page, a printed page, or a video frame. The location of one or more objects on this plane can create meaning, for example, a central placement is very strong. It can suggest that the object is very important or maybe the source of a power or quality.

An image demonstrating how the space between objects communicates meaning

The alignment of multiple objects can describe the relationship they share. Repeating shapes aligned vertically denote a list, demonstrating their decreasing importance/priority from top to bottom. Aligning these shapes horizontally instead begins to emphasise their order, as they are read from left-to-right.

A diagonal alignment combines the previous two meanings, creating a set of steps. Now, the emphasis is placed on the effect this list has, the difference between the first and last step. Steps going upwards denote success; steps going downwards, failure.

An image further demonstrating how space between objects can suggest linkage or opposition

Similarly, the distance between objects can make them look closely related, or complete opposites.

An image demonstrating the use of negative space to create an optical illusion

Another effective design principle is negative space. Negative, or “white”, space is the space surrounding an object – the space it doesn’t occupy. Many illusions, especially those by M. C. Escher, use this technique with artistic genius.

An image demonstrating how negative space can be used to create the illusion of depth

Negative space should be thought of as just as useful as the main objects in a design, as it can be very powerful. For example, hiding part of an object with negative space can create depth, making it seem behind another plane.

When utilising any of the principles in the series, it’s important to recognise how differently they may be perceived by other audiences. Most languages and cultures subscribe to the left-to-right way of thinking. Text is read from left to right, left-to-right movement of an object equates to forward movement, and time is thought of as going from left-to-right. But, in Arabic and Hebrew for example, reading is performed right-to-left, and the directional meanings of objects swap around too.

Therefore, the principles shown here (especially that of object alignment) are still valid, but must be inverted to reflect this cultural difference.

You’ll notice that so far, we’ve only been looking at black and white examples of objects. Next time however, we’ll see how colour can create meaning in objects.

In case you missed them, here are the other principles of animation and design:

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