How can Negative Space inform innovation?

Sometimes, what we don’t see is just as important as what is clearly in front of us. If you are at the beach and not seeing any seagulls, it is a reasonably good sign that a storm is approaching, since the birds have organs that detect the barometric pressure changes and will find refuge. This ability to see something where there appears to be nothing is crucial when it comes to taking action based on research findings (or the apparently lack thereof). Artists and designers refer to this as negative space.

Negative space refers to the space that surrounds the main image or subject of a drawing, painting, or photograph. Our eye is naturally drawn to the object of focus, but in a well-executed work, it is in fact the shape of the negative space that defines that image. In some works, the negative space can even become the main focus. In fact, many instructors guide students through the process of focusing their attention on the negative space as they create their composition. In the image of the mountain, take a moment to focus instead on the image of the sky, and how the edges of the sky are defined by the rocky crags and how the color gradations from the clouds reflects the snow on the peaks. As you do this, you will see that the “background” is as much, if not more a part of the image, as the foreground.

By taking the same approach to research findings, we can learn more, and make better decisions than if we only analyze what is in the positive space. I recently worked on a project that had a tightly defined goal around understanding how to improve an existing product that was not doing well in the market. The objective was to hone in on where the product could bring the most value to customers, and to define new features and functions that would be valuable. Since the product had not sold widely, the research was done with customers who did not have the product, but fit a profile of businesses that were targeted for it. After the first few visits, the product manager was distressed because it was clear that the customers we had seen would not find the product valuable because it would not fit into the way they worked In other words, she was concerned that we had not visited to the right people.

In fact, the key takeaways were in that negative space, an insight the product manager came to understand and own. We learned that the product, while valuable for certain kinds of work and a specific customer, would not have broad appeal and would be better served by narrowing the target market. We also learned that the key features and functionality that had been proposed were unlikely to increase sales, and therefore not worth the additional investment.

It is of course often challenging to have to redirect attention from the central object. Business stakeholders are often looking to answer a very specific question, often framed as “find needs,” “confirm the value proposition” or “validate assumptions.” In the process, they are in turn hoping to get a particular answer. When that answer is not forthcoming, the research can be seen as a failure or waste of time, unless we redirect to the importance of what is learned in the negative space.

In the best of circumstances the negative space can do more than point out what is not right, it can redirect attention toward new directions that have better strategic prospects. In another recent project, the business lead was convinced, based on personal experience, that a particular business function must be extremely difficult and annoying for, and the solution he was proposing would be a welcome alternative. As it turned out, while function was not anyone’s favorite part of the day, it was an accepted part of the job and there were well established tools and processes for what they were doing. At first, the business lead was sure that we had not talked to the “right” people. At the same time, these same individuals complained about a different, but related, process that was highly manual and time consuming. By shifting attention away from the original focus area, we were able to define a new space that opened possibilities for strategic advantage.

The best approach, where possible, is to leave room for the negative space to come into focus when the project begins. As in the classic image of vases or faces, in the early stages of research and innovation planning, keep the attention from being too closely attuned to a single point and remember that in the real world, with real unpredictable people, there is usually more than a single area of negative space.