Do You Know These 5 Ways to Use Negative Space in Your Book Design?

by | Sep 28, 2010

Have you ever thought about negative space? And no, I don’t mean some metaphysical concept of matter and anti-matter. When book designers talk about “negative space” they are talking primarily about unprinted areas of the page. Any areas that are left blank might be called negative space.

You might wonder how you can design with something that, in a sense, doesn’t exist. If you design it, is it still blank?

In typographic design, only two things exist on the page: type and unprinted paper. The unprinted, “negative” space offers its own zones of influence over the book design.

Although it’s not practical to give a design education in a blog post, if you know something about negative space I bet you’ll look at books and the way they are designed very differently. And these are all lessons you can use if you decide to design your own book. So here goes:

5 Ways Negative Space Affects Book Design

  1. Creating more emphasis around subheads. A simple example of the use of negative space to give more emphasis is to see what happens when you increase the amount of space around a subhead. You can do this with “space before” and “space after” commands. The extra space will cause the subhead to have more emphasis than it had before. Since it’s more isolated, it attracts more attention.
  2. book design for self-publishers

    More negative space gives the subhead much more emphasis.

  3. Heightening the drama of chapter openers. Some books seem to require more drama in the chapter opening pages. Perhaps the subject is dramatic in itself, or the book is very dense and the designer wants to give the reader a rest between chapters. There is no better way to create drama on chapter opening pages than to use a dramatic or interesting typeface and give it a third to a half a page of blank paper for contrast.
  4. book design for self-publishers

    Adding negative space heightens the drama of the chapter opening.

  5. Breaking the action for a pause or scene shift. This is the purpose of the text break, the subject of 8 Solutions to the Text Break Dilemma. The insertion of even one line space can have a big effect on the flow of the narrative. Authors of both fiction and nonfiction use these text breaks to insert a “stop” in the flow of the text. As the book designer, you can achieve this effect in many ways, but each of them requires the addition of “negative space.”
  6. book design for self-publishers

    The contrast of the negative space causes the type ornament to look very black.

  7. Orienting the basic type column on the page. Maybe the most basic use of negative space in book design is the page margins. When we set the margins for the book page, we simultaneously describe both the positive space—where the type and other page elements like folios and running heads are—and the negative space—everything that’s not “used.” Page margins have a huge effect on the overall look of the page, and how easy the book is to hold and to handle.
  8. book design for self-publishers

    Positive and negative space define the page margins of your book.

  9. Setting the space between the type lines. The space between lines—leading—is probably the smallest manipulation of negative space on the book page. Leading is one of the 3 keys to a beautiful book page. Experimenting with the amount of space between lines of type can yield remarkable differences in overall appearance of the page, its readability and how “open” it feels to the reader. Longer lines of type need more space between them, and almost any book design can be made more readable by increasing the leading.
  10. book design for self-publishers

    Increasing leading has dramatically changed the tone of the type page.

So although book pages look pretty simple, there are a lot of elements that make books more or less pleasant to handle and to read. Paying attention to negative space on the book page is one way you can control the overall color, contrast and emphasis given to different typographic elements. Book designers are adept at manipulating negative space, and with a little practice you will be too.

Takeaway: Learning to give different elements of the book page more or less emphasis depends on intelligent use of “negative space.”

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by schani,

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  1. Kilburn Hall

    After writing novels for 16-years I kind of figured out the ‘negative space’ thing but what a great article for others just getting into the business of ebook publishing. My suggestion for new career authors is to physically obtain books by the author of your choice whether Stephen King or J.K. Rowling and see how their ebooks or hardcover books look. How they are laid out. In some instances I have researched which type of font they use as in Duma Key by Stephen King. One last thing I would add is with ebooks, I wouldn’t worry about ‘fonts’ since most ebook publishers lets the reader choose from a list of fonts on the ebook reader. I always use Palatino type 11 with single spacing or Times New Roman. Good luck!

  2. R Thomas Berner

    Like Michael Marcus, I always called negative space “air.” No matter the vocabulary, the outcome is what counts and we are all on the same page. I’ve formatted two books for friends and instead of indenting the first line of the paragraphs, created a paragraph style that put air between the paragraphs. On section breaks, I increased the space and created a character style of small caps lead-in for the first three words.

    I did the first book in Word and then placed it in InDesign. But since then I have switched to InCopy. I do basic editing in Word and then move the file to InCopy for formatting. I feel much more comfortable with InCopy files going into InDesign as I formatted them than I do with Word. I do a bi-monthly newsletter the same way.

    • Joel Friedlander

      R Thomas,

      Thanks for your input. I know the “paragraph block” style is gaining in popularity, and it may be from the vast amount of text we read online now, where spaces between paragraphs help readers. In straight narrative books I still prefer the indented paragraphs, but the one thing to avoid is using both in the same format. Interesting input about InCopy, which I’m not that familiar with.

  3. David Bergsland

    For subhead space, especially, it is very important to have more space before and less after so the subhead seems visually tied to the copy that follows it. However, the same applies to headlines—to a lesser degree..

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point David, and I think you can see that idea pretty clearly in my subhead illustration. Like a lot of design ideas, it’s dictated mostly by logic.

  4. Michael N. Marcus

    There’s another way of looking at negative space. [grin]

    What you–the book designer–are calling negative space, I learned to call “white space” or “air” when I worked in advertising.

    It was any part of a page without text or an image. It could occur either deliberately (“Harry, this page is too crowded. We need more air around the pumpkins”) or accidentally (“Suzie, this page has too much white space. Decrease the leading in the headline.”)

    Somewhere/sometime (maybe in junior high) I was taught that negative space is the space (often a block of black or color) around an object that forms an _interesting shape_ (not just nothingness). The classic example of this is “Rubin’s Vase”–an optical illuision which can be interpreted either as a vase, or as two silhouetted men staring at each other.

    Your discussion of variations in leading suggests another topic: how a black-and-white page can have “color”–the degree of grayness when seen from a distance, caused by the mix of black ink and white space (or what you booksters call negative space).

    Your illustrations were very useful and came at the perfect time.

    I’m formatting a new book now, and based on your illustrations, I decided to drop my chapter titles to mid page, and will also allow more space between the title and the beginning text below the titles. In a break from my tradition (and a nod to traditional tradition) I’m making all of my chapters start on recto pages, and may even decide to force blank versos before the rectos. All the white space/air/negative space makes the chapter openings very dramatic. As author and formatter, I have the freedom to chop words to improve appearance.

    The book I reviewd for today’s BAD BOOK WEEK entry has so little air that its words are choking. The margins are tiny, and chapters end and begin on the same pages in a foolish effort to save a few sheets of paper. However, there are five unnecessary blank pages at the back.

    Many self-publishers produce their books one page at a time, like a term paper or business letter, with no thought as to how adjacent pages will look together. My first job after college was as assistant editor of a hi-fi magazine, and I was taught to do paste-ups (remember them?) of two-page spreads so we could see how the pages relate to each other and to avoid graphic clashes.

    I have no formal training in book design, and saw nothing about designing spreads in the books I read about book production when I did my first book, but my magazine experience has been very useful in formatting book pages.

    I set up my books with a temporary verso page-zero, so I can see correct verso-recto pagination while putting the book together. Before I make the final PDF, page-zero comes out. Page-zero is also a good place to park a temporary to-do list.

    Michael N. Marcus
    Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:

    • Joel Friedlander

      Glad I can help out your design efforts, Michael. Are you still doing all your books in Word or have you taken the plunge with InDesign?

      You have also discovered something that book designers know: the unit of design in books is the spread, not the page. Asymmetrical designs show this most strikingly. Thanks for your contribution.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        I have four books that are nearing completion, and were started in Word, so they’ll likely finish in Word.

        I’ve been experimenting with InDesign, but still have a lot to learn before I’m comfortable with it. I may use it for book #15.

        When I write a book, I conceive and format it as a series of two-page spreads with subheads, illustrations, text boxes and chapter breaks — not just a stack of pages.

        I’ll have to change my thought pattern and just create raw text to pour into InDesign, and it may be a difficult transition.

        It seems really strange to be talking about book #15, since my first self-pubbed book came out in 2008–and that was the only one I planned to do. Book publishing and website-making are addictive. If I don’t start a new website every six weeks, or don’t have a new book to work on, I get itchy.

        • David Bergsland

          ACtually, InDesign will take your Word file and kick it up several notches with much more control and far greater production speed. It does take a bit of work. The biggest savings are in the use of styles applied by user-set shortcuts. I wrote a book on that (Publishing with InDesign).



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