5. Positive Space
(This is the fifth in a series of 15 blogs that explore Christopher Alexander’s “Fifteen Properties” of good design, natural beauty, living spaces, etc.).
Life is a dance on the edge between chaos, on the one hand, and sameness & repetition on the other hand. Repetition without variation or change is not life. On the other hand, endless random variation without any pattern or principle is also not life. Planet Earth is sometimes said to be a “Goldilocks Planet” — not too hot and not too cold — to support life. Most of the life forms on planet earth themselves exhibit a “positive shape” — a shape that wants to expand and fill out — and yet, there are limits because of circulation, gravity, communication etc. so that growth is typically not unrestricted. The tension between trying to grow and having to stick close enough to form creates positive space.
Life may not always be “a bowl of cherries” but nonetheless, a bowl of cherries does illustrate the property of “positive space.” The bowl connotes living things trying to expand right up to the boundaries possible. A bowl that is filled with cherries and even slightly over-filled but without inducing a fear of spillage, to me, connotes life being vigorous and healthy. To me, a single cherry sitting all alone in a large bowl seems to exhibit positive space much less — at least at the scale of the bowl.
When I look at an individual cherry, I also see positive space. The cherry is not a perfect sphere, featureless and smooth. If it were, to me, it would be a much less positive space. The fact that there is a stem and a noticeable indentation where the stem goes provides a kind of center. So too does the slight asymmetry of the cherry. It appears as though it might have developed as two halves that tried to circle a space at the same time from two different directions – clockwise and counterclockwise. They met and merged to form the almost spherical cherry.
The cherry is not the only natural food that has this kind of positive space. Think of corn on the cob. Each kernel seems to have tried to grow as large as it can. It pushes up against and into other kernels. Each kernel seems therefore to be “bursting with life.”
Consider a cucumber. It’s roughly cylindrical. But “roughly” is important here. To me, it would seem much less an example of “Positive Space” if it were literally a cylinder. It tapers at the ends and it bulges at the middle. That seems more “positive.”
A person who doesn’t understand that life is primarily a cooperative endeavor among all the parts of the vast tree of life, but instead sees the world only as a zero-sum game, it must seem as though the positive living space of a cucumber makes the space around the cucumber less positive and less living. But this is not true! The space around the cucumber’s slightly rotund shape is much more positive and living than the space around a perfect cylinder.
Think of a tree trunk compared with a telephone pole. They are both made of wood and they are both approximately cylindrical. But a tree trunk feels much more alive to us than a telephone pole. I don’t think this is simply because we “know” a tree is alive. It looks more alive and if you allow yourself to “tune in” to it, it feels more alive. And, importantly, not only does the space that the tree inhabits seem more living. So too does the space around it! A long line of telephone poles may exhibit “Levels of Scale” and “Alternating Repetition” and such a picture may make us feel some life to it.
But a single telephone pole does nothing to stir life in me. In that sense, it’s nothing like a tree. It’s flat and it kills the space on either side as well. The columns in the Parthenon are roughly cylindrical and obviously not literally alive. But they, unlike a telephone pole, have positive space and create positive space around them. Life is not fundamentally a zero-sum game. The bee does not “steal” the flowers pollen and thus damage the flower. The bee helps the flower. The flower helps the bee. Positive space in an object does not steal from or detract from the space around the object. It enhances it!
Similarly, the “competition” for space among the kernels of corn on a cob of corn shows that competition can be a beautiful thing. I like to see the kernels pushing against each other. All of them seem living and positive. Imagine instead a cob of corn in which one kernel had grown like a giant spider of orange cancer and took up 98% of the cob. Aside from this one ultra-greedy cell, there were only a few widely spaced and shriveled up kernels. Would you pick that from the pile of corn? Would want to slather it with butter and bite into it? I sure wouldn’t! And to me, that is exactly what cruelty, unfairness, and greed look like. It might seem positive — after all, the dictator is trying to “grow.” That is true but he’s rigged the game. Competition is no longer beautiful when the game is rigged. Competition is no longer beautiful when your tennis opponent slices off your leg before the match starts or pays off the chair umpire to call everything you hit out.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about cucumbers or cherries or corn. I just happened to have been washing vegetables before writing this. These radishes also exhibit positive space. And, although their shape is not the same as a cherry or a cucumber, the radishes also enhance the space around them. And, so does the avocado. An avocado that is just past ideal ripeness begins to flatten irregularly and the “pebbles” of the skin also flatten making a less positive space. The pebbles of a perfectly ripe avocado are themselves tiny positive spaces that add to the overall impression of vigor.
Flowers provide numerous examples of positive space. And, so far as I can tell, the positive space of flowers invariably also enhances the positivity of the space around them.
Animals also generally exhibit positive space. Their shapes, after all, come about through a struggle among different tradeoffs that have been “learned” by each species over four and a half billion years. But whether you look at the leg of a turtle, the leg of a turkey, or the leg of a polar bear, you will see positive space. The shapes are quite different because their histories are quite different. But in every case, the shape is determined by the history and each of those histories is the same length — 4.5 billion years. The fact that each of these shapes comes about through the dance of trying to survive and thrive in all their various habitats makes every one of them beautiful in its own right — even those whom most of us don’t particularly like to interact with such as rattlesnakes or lions. Even if we don’t wish to come face to face with a lion or grizzly bear we do recognize their beauty. And, I would claim that as those animals walk through any landscape, they will not only exhibit their own positive shape; they will also enhance the positivity of the shape around where they are walking. Think how many times photographers and painters have put an animal in the foreground of a landscape! Of course, doing so makes the scene immediately more living, more interesting, and more beautiful.
What does this have to do with the user’s experience on a computing device? I would have to say that most interfaces on most devices do not do a lot to bring the interface “alive” including having positive space. The tool bar icons on this version of my Mac are very slightly “bulging” like a living cell (or kernel of corn). Even more subtly, the windows have slightly rounded corners.
It’s an entirely different story with many games though. It seems to me that some of the game artists are among the best artists in the world. They have created many very beautiful games. Could they be more beautiful still if game designers consciously thought about using Christopher Alexander’s “Properties” in general, and “Positive Space” in particular? I think so, but for many games, such as Horizon Zero Dawn, many of the elements are copied so closely from nature that aspects such as “Positive Space” are mostly already taken care of by evolutionary bias toward the beautiful. (Yes, I do think there is such a bias, but it will have to be the subject of a different post.)
What about other applications and systems? Do you think you’ve seen good examples of “Positive Space” in such systems? How could you see incorporating “Positive Space” in UX?