Using negative space and panels

By Randy Howe

Posted on Friday, April 14th, 2023

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It’s a little hard, and not quite fair, to define the process of creating an effective sign design as if it were a step-by-step process. Usually—at least for me—it doesn’t quite work that way. Sometimes the layout idea will come along first; other times the lettering design pops right out at me, then I build the layout around that.

I’ve got a strong math background, so you’d think that the layout process would be a linear process—first choose this, then determine that and so on. But it’s a little more art than science, so there are usually several thoughts happening at once that lead to the resulting design. In an effort to organize the process a bit, though, let’s talk about the layout next.

Usually, my focus is on the main copy at the outset. I’m looking for a theme or a feel that will fit the image of the business and work for the purpose. That primary message is really what guides my overall layout. As it comes together, though, there are three key items I’ll keep in mind.

Plan for and use negative space

Negative space is the space around the letters, around the words and around the groups of words in a layout. As I put a design together, I’m very conscious of this negative space. It frames each block of copy and frames the entire layout. It’s essential for good readability.

When you hear a customer say the sign is “too busy” or “too hard to read,” the lack of negative space is often to blame. The space around the words and around the blocks of copy plays a key role in helping the reader’s brain decipher the message.

I also look for negative space that I can put to work—where I can tuck some secondary copy or something. That can be very effective.

Finally, I watch carefully for annoying spaces created by negative space. It can unconsciously draw the reader’s eye away from the message for a few seconds, which can really hurt.

Consider using a panel

I often use panels to help me organize the copy. Remember that we want to control the order in which the viewer reads the message. Panels are a great tool for this—it’s like making a sign inside a sign.

You can use a panel to add some interest to the main message or to gather secondary copy together. Sometimes I’ll use one panel—other times I may use five or six.

Bump it together

Don’t be afraid to let text bump into other text or overlap it. This can really tighten a message and add interest to a layout. It helps eliminate a generic or mechanical look—which can really turn the reader off.

When you do start bumping text together, though, you’ll want to use contrast to keep the messages separate. Look at interesting signs and logos closely and note how often this is used. There may be little or no space between two words, but there’s a dramatic difference in contrast—super heavy and super light, or a powerful color and a very subdued color.

Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.

This appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of SignCraft.

Here’s a logo and sign design from a few years back.

For this job, I first went looking for some Mexican-looking patterns to use in the background. I knew I wanted some bright colors, but it was designed in black and white. I put Audi’s down first, then moved the secondary copy around, overlapping Audi’s and letting that dot on the “i” tuck up into that negative space between the U and the D. I look for opportunities like that. Maybe I’m crazy, but I like what that does to a message. Those little nuances can add a lot to a design.

This is one of my favorite projects of all time—a series of signs given as gifts to the groomsmen from the bride and groom (Crystal and Jeff Saunders), who are close friends of ours and came to me with this awesome idea. These signs use all the tricks and tips we are talking about: font choice, use of negative space and finding interesting ways to connect letters. You put the pieces of the “sign puzzle” together to create a fun, attractive design that conveys just the right message.

…and speaking of favorites, here is one of my favorite window splash designs that fits the bill.

This is a promotional piece done for me.

Here I tucked Glass Artist into the negative space above her name. Sometimes the copy will create an opportunity like that, other times it won’t. You never know where the copy will lead you. This is a really simple layout, too.

I started with the lettering here, just moving the words around to find a way that they fit together nicely. I decided to bump them up against the graphic and make it into a nice little package.

Here I used a panel behind the copy to hold it together a bit. It adds no production time, but a great deal of cohesiveness to the design.

Here’s another one where everything except the date is bumping into everything else. I got lucky with these cartoons. I don’t draw anything myself, so good clip art resources are essential. I got a lot of work from this job. It was a fun one, too.

Here’s one I designed for myself a few years ago but never put to use—not yet, anyway. “Mabel” (the photo at right explains it—that’s me on the left!) was my nickname as a child—until I finally got my first haircut.


Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.