Keep Left, Right?

"How many more hours to the lake?"

"I don't know, like, three? Something like that." My dad maneuvers the van out of the Ruby Tuesday parking lot, past the strip of hotels, and back the way we came.

"I hope we get there before the sun sets; I'm looking forward to getting some skiing in before dinner."

"Yeah, me too." He coasts to a stop at a red light, then turns slightly to face me in the passenger seat. "Say, Nicholas, do you have any interest in going to watch the outlaw sprint cars after dinner?" He smiles, perhaps a little too encouragingly.

I look up from my book, one eyebrow raised. Everything in my dad’s life revolves around cars, even a Father/Son trip ostensibly about beaches and boats and burgers and anything not cars.

I sigh audibly. "If we must."

“Excellent. There’s a race that starts at 7:00. We should be able to make it easily after we eat.”

When the light changes, Dad makes a left, onto the entrance ramp for the highway. Fifty feet ahead, the road splits: back home to Chicago, and onward to Wisconsin, land of weekend watersports. Hopefully.

He subtly drifts into the right lane.

I glance up from my book. "What are you doing? Stay left!"

"What sign are you reading? Clearly, this one says to go right!"

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Artist's rendition.

"No, it doesn't! Wisconsin is left! North is to the left! Wisconsin is north of here, duh!"

"Didn't you go to school? That sign says that North is to the right!"

Almost immediately after committing to the right path, it becomes obvious that left was, in fact the correct choice.

“Son, we may not make it in time for skiing today, but worry not—there will still be plenty of time for the race track tonight!”

I physically bury my face in the book, so as to stifle a groan.

* * *

Hierarchy of positive space is important in design: as the driver, identifying which direction I wish to travel in must come first, which is why the "Wisconsin" and "Chicago" headings are the most prominent items on the sign that messed up my dad in Rockford. The instructions "keep left" and "keep right" have little meaning without the headings, and therefore are smaller and less prominent. According to this criteria, this sign is a flawless execution of typographical hierarchy. How could anything possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, size alone doesn't exactly communicate to drivers which set of directions accompanies each destination. If I want to go North, do I follow the instructions below, or to the right? There has to be more to hierarchy than size, or else I wouldn’t have kicked off such a promising vacation at the race track.

Another way to think of negative space is proximity: how close are two things to each other? Which things go together, and which are separate? In the case of the road sign leading me to Wisconsin (or, really, leading me away from Wisconsin), increasing the distance between Wisconsin / keep left” and “Chicago / keep right” would have made it clear to my dad which direction he was supposed to take. When there is a difference in proximity among a group of objects, closer items will appear more related, and distant items will appear less related.

* * *

As the smallest unit of graphic design, negative space in typography is especially important. Titles should be read first, usually, and are therefore larger than the accompanying body copy.

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Visually, this heading appears to associate equally with each paragraph, especially if we can’t read it. By changing the proximity between the three items, interpreting this layout becomes more clear.

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It might be easier to imagine why proximity is important if the layout is made slightly more complex: in the following image, does the heading encompass only the section below, or does it also describe the section at left?

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Increasing the negative space between sections makes it clear that the sidebar is definitely something separate.

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As designers, we have the responsibility to guide a viewer's eyes through our content, to ensure that they receive the message as we intend it. Proper use of negative space can mean the difference between a delivering the correct message, and instructing my dad to drive south for 30 miles until he can turn around at the next closest exit, then north into the Wisconsin sunset, straight past a gently swaying ski boat docked at the pier, and directly into the grandstands of an outlaw sprint car race for like three grueling hours. Ugh.

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