Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

April 30, 2019

The uses of not”

Thirty spokes

meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out,

clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows

to make a room.

Where the room isn’t,

there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is

is in the use of what isn’t.

From K. Ursula Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

A pot is made up of rounded walls and a base. It’s heavy, tangible, and sturdy—though brittle. The entire point of the pot is not the object itself, but in the space it creates inside.

As a designer, you’re taught to pay attention to negative space (where things aren’t on the page.) For example, you’re reading this text right now, but if it weren’t for the white space around it, you wouldn’t be able to read it at all. Where the ink’s not is just as important as where it is.

Negative space is also a metaphor for looking at the inverse of a problem.

In Tobias Frere-Jones’s talk Break Things Deliberately”  he recommends: If you’re trying to figure out how to solve a problem, pause for a moment, and think about how you could make it worse.” By figuring out how you could make it worse, it might become clear what the problems are and, thus, make a solution evident.

There’s always another way to look at things; another side that needs to be acknowledged, too. Someone recently asked me what three adjectives I would use to describe myself. My first choice was honest. They asked, Are you always honest?” Of course not! I bullshit all the time—perhaps less than others, but I’m still full of shit. Therein lies a fundamental truth: there’s no positive without the negative, no one without the other. (Read more about inversion as a mental model here.)