Columns / Typography

White Shapes

Cyrus   Highsmith
In her famous book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards writes, “If students pay close attention to negative space in their drawings, many compositional problems are automatically solved.” In my type design elective at Rhode Island School of Design, I have observed a similar phenomenon. When my students focus on the white shapes in and around letters, the difficult issues of balance, spacing and form often resolve themselves. It’s a powerful principle that can be applied to letters, drawings and designs of all kinds.

Focusing on white shapes while drawing letters can be a bit difficult to grasp at first. For some students it is already a natural way to draw, but for others it requires some training. Fortunately, there’s a well-established way to help learn about negative space: contour-drawing exercises.

In contour drawing, you use a continuous line to describe an object’s silhouette. This encourages you to focus on its form and volume instead of the details. The contour represents an edge where two shapes meet, the shape of the object and the shape of the space around it.

With practice, you can draw while maintaining a simultaneous awareness of the subject and the background. This awareness means the difference between a drawing that just sits on the surface of the page and one that grabs the page, digs into it and uses the whole thing. In other words, it means good composition.

Typographic letters are also drawn with contours. Instead of shape and nonshape, we think in terms of black shapes and white shapes. With practice, you can draw letters while maintaining a simultaneous awareness of both kinds of shapes—and design strong letters that form unified words.

Focusing on white shapes also provides students with a method for looking at their letterform drawings more critically. For example, the N is made of two white triangles. Conventionally, the bottom triangle of the N is slightly larger than the top triangle. If you want the N you are drawing to look well balanced, you must follow that convention.

How do my students figure this out? I teach them to look at the white shapes in Ns from existing typefaces and to study the relationship between them. Turning the letter upside down often helps. It doesn’t even matter if the typefaces look very much like the one they are drawing. In fact, this is a good way to take advantage of the thousands of fonts we can access. You can learn the most by comparing the shape relationships across different designs. When you find a consistent pattern, like the size relationship between the triangles in the N, you have something you can use. Not copy, per se, but use.

Instead of memorizing 26 sets of rules for drawing each uppercase and 26 more for drawing the lowercase, you need to remember only one thing—focus on the white shapes. It’s a very visual way of learning, one that comes naturally to students. Even if memorizing rules were a good way to approach drawing, I doubt it would be effective in my classroom. My students and I aren’t at art school because we like learning long lists of rules.

I want very much for my students to learn what makes a correct and readable typeface. I also know that, after my class is over, the vast majority of them will never make a typeface again. My students are graphic designers, not type designers. Nevertheless, I believe that studying type design with a focus on white shapes is worthwhile. In addition to sharpening a designer’s ability to look critically at typefaces, the awareness of white shapes can be extended beyond letters and words, to the spaces between lines, columns, gutters, margins and pages. Graphic designers can use this approach to easily resolve their layouts, just as Edwards’s students do in their drawings.

The principle of negative space is well known in two-dimensional design, and it’s often acknowledged as important. However, compared with topics like color theory, grid systems and even programming, it remains relatively obscure, both in the classroom and in creative processes. Type design offers a concrete and natural way to grasp the importance of what is often relegated to the margins. ca

Cyrus Highsmith ( is a type designer at Font Bureau, senior critic at the Rhode Island School of Design and author of Inside Paragraphs: Typographic Fundamentals. His books and prints are available from Occupant Press.


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