Design professor shares how to use ‘negative space’

Douglas Thomas, assistant professor in the design department, lectures to students about negative spaces. The lecture is the first of the Faith and Works lecture series for the 2021-22 school year. (Mandi Robins)

BYU design professor Douglas Thomas delivered a message about negative space to College of Fine Arts and Communications students on Thursday, Nov. 4.  

Through the lens of design, Thomas discussed using negative space deliberately while describing the inequity and healing that it brings. 

“In my industry of graphic design we think about space deliberately and often, with great consideration,” Thomas said. 

He mentioned the Jewish term “Sabbath” and how the noun does not only mark a day of rest, but is a verb that means to cease or desist. “There is a very deliberate way of saying no,” Thomas said. 

“Saying no is actually your most powerful friend,” he said. “It may be one of the most powerful design tools you have; saying no is a powerful tool for having time for other things that are more important.” 

Thomas told students about his experience at the University of Chicago while obtaining his master’s in social science. He talked about how busy the library was on Sundays.

During his experience there he relied on the promise found in Matthew 6:33, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” 

His colleagues would be in the library and design buildings from dawn until dusk, but Thomas had many opportunities to put the principle to the test. 

Thomas said he felt like he was blessed with insights because of the deliberate decision he made to get up early on a Monday or work late on a Saturday instead of being in the library on Sunday. 

When being deliberate in time and space there are also built-in inequities, Thomas said, like white space being a luxury good. In publications, books and other design projects, white space can be determined by the amount of money one has. 

“These moments of repose that are so crucial to typography and so crucial to our lives, like our Sabbaths actually do require us to sacrifice time and money,” Thomas said.

He concluded his lecture by discussing the healing that comes from negative spaces.

“Negative space forces us to consider what is most important,” Thomas said. “Time on Sundays can be some of the most difficult times for all of us because we are actually forced to confront the difficult truths in our lives.” 

The power of negative spaces in life becomes a source of healing and a way to spiritual fortification, Thomas said.

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