(theory 9)
Design space: Arnheimian space

It isn’t much of a coincidence, that I want to begin discussing visual design “space” by talking about real space, as for years, I have started every workday looking at a computer screen with a background image of a galaxy surrounded by stars – a visualization of intergalactic space. Although Canada’s capital city isn’t a huge city, it is easily big enough to make it difficult to see many of those stars any place other than on my computer screen. But what I find interesting about the real space that I’ve been assured is up there – the space full of stars – is that it is turning out not to be what people thought. The idea that space is empty, except for what we can see, now seems to be plain wrong.


Figure 1
Screen capture of my somewhat cleaned-up computer desktop.

Some examples of this are as follows:

  1. What seems to be black empty space is full of dark matter – a currently unobservable substance that makes up over 80% of the matter in the universe.
  2. The Higgs boson, recently detected at CERN, is what gives mass to objects, and the Higgs field, which generates the boson, is everywhere.
  3. Not really a surprise, but black empty space is continually inhabited by the starlight traversing it, and permeated by the gravitational pull of its resident celestial bodies.
  4. And we haven’t even discussed the science fiction favourite – black holes – with incredible gravity, yet impossible to see.

Why compare deep space to design space? The first point is that space is not what it seems. It is not empty. The second point is that space interacts with things in it – space isn’t an innocent bystander – but participates in what goes on within its apparent emptiness. So the question is: is it the same thing with graphic space?

Let’s first consider Rudolf Arnheim’s perspectives on 2-dimensional graphic space. Rudolf Arnheim was a German-born perceptual psychologist, original influenced by the ideas of Gestalt psychologists. Over 60 years prior to this post, Arnheim applied scientific perspectives to seeing and analysing art, much like the perspective Paragraphic is trying to apply to visual design now. In Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Arnheim devotes a whole chapter to discussing the behaviours of space. Arnheim reasons that our minds create visual mind fields in which everything is in flux. Visual tensions pervade this space – much as the Higgs field, or gravity, pervade physical space – pulling and pushing, forming and informing our perceptions.

Our first surprising discovery then, is that there is no such thing as a strictly flat, two-dimensional image [1].

According to Arnheim, space is always seen whether or not intended. A straight line on white paper may seem to float in front of background. In the visual plane, any continuous drawn line that encloses a space will create a shape – “a spatial leap from foreground to background…” [2] – and a space around that shape. Think of the concept of figure and ground. It implies the existence of virtual, visual space.

There are various other ways we perceive space. Visual depth may be created by overlapping figures, (see figure 2) or by adding a transparent figure over another, by contrasting sizes of visual elements, or through the use of visual gradients (such as a black to white gradient). Deformations in shapes, such as a simple skewed rectangle imply perspective, and thus create space [3].


Figure 2
Overlapping figures create perceived space.

Arnheim states that, “without light the eyes can observe no shape, no color, no space or movement” [4]Light then, is the foundation for all perception. Light helps us see discreet objects within a space [5]. Light also increases and reduces visual attention given to objects within any visual space. So light defines graphic space. No light – no space.

As far as the psychological perceptual behaviour of colour, what we know of, are its plastic effects. Some colours advance in space, while others recede. Warm colours, such as yellows, visually spread outwards, and cooler colours, such as blues, visually contract [6]. As soon as there is a combination of two or more colours, graphic space is perceived.

The introduction of motion within a visual space has the highest effect on human attention. As an object moves within a space we experience time, as the object’s movement is perceived. But the space itself, or the stage within which the movement occurs stands still, “outside time” [7]. Therefore, it is the mind that assigns the roles, either of moving object or of static spatial framework, within its perceived view. Within the relationship between the spatial framework, and the dominant and dependent objects, movement and time interact and are perceived.

The mosquito is attached to the elephant, not the elephant to the mosquito. The dancer is part of the stage setting, not the stage setting the outer rim of the dancer. In other words, quite apart from motion, the spontaneous organization of the visual field assigns to certain objects the role of framework, on which others are seen to depend [8].

Arnheim believes our minds create virtual graphic space for a reason, and his reason is based on the psychological theory of simplicity. The human mind continually interprets its perceptions in the simplest possible way.

Any stimulus pattern tends to be seen in such a way that the resulting structure is as simple as the given conditions permit [9].

So Arnheim suggests that, in figure 2, our brain decides it is seeing two identical rectangles, as it is simpler for us to add three-dimensional space to mentally overlap these figures. In figure 3, we could see a complex, distorted shape, but it is simpler for our brain to intervene and interpret the figure as a rectangle in perspective, again by creating three-dimensional space.


Figure 3
Deformations can create three-dimensional space.

It seems that our eyes and minds are wired for the physical world, treating the two-dimensional world as if it were three-dimensional. In attempting to simplify perception, our minds always add a dimension to two-dimensional space.


[1] – [9] Arnheim, R. (1974). Art and visual perception: A psychology of the creative eye, the new version. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[1] (p. 219)
[2] (p. 221)
[3] (p. 258)
[4] (p. 302)
[5] (p. 313)
[6] (p. 369)
[7] (p. 381)
[8] (p. 380)
[9] (p. 53)


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