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Peter Saville on Negative Space

The prolific graphic designer on the use of negative space

Afterzine (2010)

Peter Saville
Peter Saville on Negative Space: Project

Art Director Peter Saville made a name for himself in Manchester’s music scene of the late 70s and early 80s, creating some of the most iconic album covers of all time, namely Joy Division and New Order's album artwork. He went on to work with a string legendary design agencies as well as under his own name.

From his record sleeve art, to his advertising art direction and his later fashion and consulting collaborations, Saville’s work has been characterised by its brave use of empty or negative spaces. Here he explores the significance and the power of this and postulates what negative space has come to represent on a broader scale.

Peter Saville, as told to Laura Havlin

There is an active awareness of negative space in the context of graphics. It’s such a known value or quality that it’s more of an intuitive thing with graphic designers, so it is most likely to be referred to in passing in a kind of “well of course” way. It’s particularly pertinent to graphic design, more so than product design. Obviously, it has an active value in architecture because of the interplay between volume and space in architecture, so the creation of space within buildings or within a complex of buildings. The presence of space is a quality in itself but also a quality against which that which is present is experienced. The classic courtyard in the middle of a building is typical of the relationship between what is there and what isn’t there in architecture.

In graphic design it is very important because it’s the space created within which something is present–the energy of what is there is determined by what isn’t there. Graphic designers will refer to space as positively and as intuitively as architects would. Most great graphic works employ the negative as evidently as they employ the positive. An example which doesn’t appear to use it at first but actually it does are the famous posters of Cassandra, the French poster designer from the 20s and 30s, and one of his most famous posters is of a cruise liner coming towards you. There isn’t literally negative space in the poster but actually the entire hull of the liner is, in a way, negative space.

There are different ways negative space might appear in a graphic work but it is always the way tension and contrast are created. There is a great Man Ray poster for the London Underground which is predominantly black and there is a kind of shape orbiting in the black. The blackness of the poster is the negative space in which something exists. That actually is negative space, the black, whereas in Cassandra’s steam ship liner poster, it appears to all be illustrated better but actually there is a great big chunk of negative space in there which becomes part of the illustration. Graphic artists always use negative space to create tension and dynamism within the work.

My own particular version of it, which I wasn’t consciously or strategically aware of when I started out doing record covers, is a variation on this contrast theme. It only came to me recently when I was reading something about galleries and the stillness of the gallery as the environment in which we experience art. You are very aware of that experience you suddenly have when you cross the threshold and enter into a gallery and it all becomes empty space in which you then experience a painting or a sculpture or a some other work of art. Space is created around the work by the gallery itself. If we were to remove the gallery and hang the paintings on the railings outside it would be a very difficult environment in which to see the work. The gallery creates this still zone in which we then see things. For graphic work, that doesn’t happen normally. Graphic works are normally seen in magazines, notice boards, or advertisements. They tend to fill the space available and consequently they are brushing up against other busy works.

The first medium of exposure for me was the record rack in the record shop where all the albums are competing against each other and what I tended to do, but I just did it intuitively, was I put an awful lot of space around the piece that I was working with. The easiest examples were the first two Joy Division albums, Unknown Pleasures in particular and then Closer. Unknown Pleasures has got a whole ocean of black around an image in the middle of the cover and then Closer has almost as much white around a photograph of a cemetery. I realised that this early work of mine created it’s own zone of stillness which separated it from that overcrowded visual atmosphere of the album rack.

The response people had to my early record covers, that they 'kind of looked like art', was partly due to the fact I presented them like art. I created a space around the work. I created a still zone, a big frame around the work so people looked at it with more deference. It creates space for respect within which people appreciate the visual. I used to be afraid that they were kind of boring -there is only a slight difference between stillness and boredom and nothingness. I used to be anxious that there was a certain amount of insecurity in the work but I realised in retrospect, after I read that piece about stillness in the gallery atmosphere, that this stillness was empowering to the work in such a high intensity environment.

In the over crowded visual environment of commerce things that define their own space take on an iconic quality. The i-pod is a great example of that. The i-pod is a great example of negative space in product design. It’s physical it’s actually there but there’s nothing happening and it is this very minimal interface. It’s a piece of shiny black three-dimensional negative space. Put it down next to a Walkman and the things that came before the i-pod – it’s like an icon. The Obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey is an interesting example of negative space. It is negative space with dimensionality. The i-pod is very like the Obelisk in 2001.

In the all black cover of Blue Monday, which employs negative space as a thing and interfaces different qualities of black, there are different qualities within the black. There is a satin black, there is a gloss black and there is a hole. It makes something tangible out of the negative. Take the current obsession with white interiors, white furniture and very reductive pieces. These are all responses to the overcrowded visual environment that we exist in. One response to that is to make things bolder brasher and even more bling and the other approach is just nothing. The nothing approach is the white space, white furniture, which is technical, slightly like a laboratory, there is an academic intelligence to it and the feeling of negative space as a modern luxury. Not negative space but non space. It’s negative space as thinking space. It is a luxury. Time and space are modern luxuries.

Self-published in Hamish Robertson's Afterzine 1.

Peter Saville on Negative Space: Welcome
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