June 24, 2012 9:06 AM   Subscribe

I encountered this phenomenon from my practice as a graphic designer: - it looks as though people with narcissistic streak and big ego - people who have problem with empathy - they also have a problem with negative space. They are anxious about it, they don't understand it and want to fill it with information. They don't "experience" beauty directly , but instead, they form "narrative" about it. I often encountered this while working with medical professionals (where narcissism is quite common). Is this something I imagined or is this something that's actually confirmed in psychology/psychiatry?
posted by leigh1 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I think this seems like confirmation bias. People who hired graphic designers might ask why designers are loathe to include all the information and/or do all the work they are being paid to do.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:13 AM on June 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

In my experience as a graphic designer, most clients feel that negative space is "wasted space". Someplace that you can cram more info, or a space in which you can make the logo bigger. I think that part of the anxiousness comes from a sense of "we are paying for this and we want to have our brand indicia on every single centimeter.

I have found, also, that the client has to sell the piece to their bosses, and they don't want to be asked why part of it is "blank".
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 9:15 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a diagnosed "problem with empathy" and I have no problem with negative space. I think it depends on the profession and the relation to efficient use of space. The people you encounter may be used to include as much information as possible in anything they publish, and use the given space efficiently. If you'd work for narcissistic people with a more artistic profession (i.e. architects instead of medical professionals) you may get very different results, as these are people who are more familiar with artistic concepts.
posted by MinusCelsius at 9:17 AM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and part of them wanting to form a narrative about it rather then simply experiencing it is them needing to tell their bosses why they have chosen this particular design vs another.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 9:19 AM on June 24, 2012

People who don't understand design often feel that more is always better, to the point of making the designed thing harder to read/understand/use. My department at work runs into this a lot with our "clients" - other program areas in our organization - and although I'm not a clinical psychologist, I can say that pretty much none of the people critiquing the designs we offer them are clinically narcissistic (just ordinarily self-focussed, or, perhaps more accurately, more focussed on what they think will be best for their program area).
posted by rtha at 9:19 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

In some of Alan Watts's books - I think the ones on Zen - he draws broad associations between the use of negative space in Japanese and more generally south-east Asian art, and attitudes towards selfhood and self-focus in East vs West. I'm not endorsing his cultural generalisations but the idea here would be that somehow there's a connection between societies that are more egocentrically focused and societies where the dominant aesthetic is fixated on individual, demarcated forms rather than the surrounding space, or the way that spaces and forms are interdependent.

That said, it's hard not to read your question as seeking a complex psychological explanation for a much simpler phenomenon: the aesthetic popular among graphic designers, in which white space is so cherished, just isn't an aesthetic shared by a particularly large part of the population.
posted by oliverburkeman at 9:30 AM on June 24, 2012 [18 favorites]

I'd like to hear the actual story behind this. If it's clients complaining about negative space in your designs, yes I would say it is confirmation bias and/or the ones who complain aggressively without really knowing what they are talking about tend to complain about that.
posted by BibiRose at 9:39 AM on June 24, 2012

No, I've not experienced this, nor have I heard about it. I'll query my friend who is an active graphic designer (I no longer am) but I think i agree with those above that most people see negative space as "wasted space." Also, I simply didn't interact or engage with most of my clients in a way that would have lent me to armchair psychology.

The vast majority of graphic designers I know are themselves very egocentric, though.
posted by sm1tten at 9:41 AM on June 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

The coworker who asked me to design a flyer and then made me keep adding more stuff until no more clip art and Comic Sans could fit on the page... was one of the sweetest, warmest people I've ever met.

What oliverburkeman said.
posted by Jeanne at 9:44 AM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wonder if you're looking at this too narrowly on both sides of the equation? That is to say that perhaps it's not that egoistic empathy-less narcissists avoid/hate negative space, but rather that being say, selfish or self-absorbed correlates with noise/chaos/drama on some level; and that this can sometimes manifest in micro-examples of the larger phenomenon, e.g., those people judging over a piece of art and 1) not enjoying the minimalist representation (it's not dramatic or 'messy' enough; it's too simple), and 2) those same people also wanting to express an opinion or have their say ("well, let me tell you what *I* think..."), somehow inserting themselves into the process, i.e. making it about them.

So perhaps there is a relationship there, but between two different sets of items higher up the conceptual chain, in which the personality traits you describe are a subset of one larger category, and the behaviors (e.g., not liking white space) are an outcome of another larger, correlated category.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:44 AM on June 24, 2012

. They don't "experience" beauty directly , but instead, they form "narrative" about it.

Keep in mind from this AskMe where we explained to the OP that coworkers and other clients and finders WANT things to be presented in a form that "tells a story." While this might not be entirely appropriate from a design (and a designer's) perspective, that's everyone's first instinct.

What you have to remember is that your field is design and their field is something else, so what you consider "good design" isn't what other people necessarily expect or what would design for themselves.
posted by deanc at 10:06 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

My parents were graphic designers with a pretty minimalist aesthetic. My impression from being around graphic design people and stuff in my formative years is that many, many people who don't come from a design-y background don't like or understand negative space. It's just that the arrogant (or outspoken, successful, used to having their way, etc) types will be more likely to tell you about this, while the less confident people will keep quiet, either out of timidity or because they assume you're the expert, so you must know best. I think these two types of people would react in those two different ways to any product or service they're buying.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:13 AM on June 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

If someone needs to hire a graphic designer, then they don't understand enough about design to design stuff well, and negative space is about the most basic concept behind good design.
posted by cmoj at 10:51 AM on June 24, 2012

Some people believe that graphic designers design more for themselves than for the client. Those with narcissistic streak and big ego will tell you their opinions. Others may be unhappy with the result, but don't tell you their real opinions.

Instead of trying to explain the beauty of negative space, tell you clients "this is how Google and Apple does it".
posted by iviken at 12:12 PM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your psychology is very very faulty. They aren't narcissistic or egotistical.

As a graphic designer, I've found that many, many, many people are uncomfortable with negative/empty space, when it comes to the ad/brochure/whatever they are paying you for. You can try to explain to them why less is more, but it will often be futile. They want to make sure every possible sales point is mentioned so a potential customer doesn't miss a thing. To you, the piece is an exercise in effective communication and image-making. To them, it's sales piece. A contact piece. It must sell, and sell hard.

Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and give the client what they want. In fact, I just completed a full-page ad for a local free newspaper, and the client insisted on cramming it full of product photos, and event calendar, and acres of body copy. I just held my nose and got it all to fit and not look too much like ass. The client loves it.

This job will go a lot easier if avoid ascribing negative psychological traits to clients who don't follow your eye for design. Trust me on that.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:13 PM on June 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's just a simple case of clients that don't see the value, they see the cost. And they're hell bent on getting as much as they can for that cost, no matter how poorly the end result communicates. My experience has been that clients like that can't communicate their message in the ad/brochure/whatever, because there is no message, just copy.

/just left a newspaper ad design job
//no, not bitter, why do you ask?
///ok, maybe a little.
posted by azpenguin at 10:04 PM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it is a little unreasonable to expect people trained in other disciplines to see things your way. Unfortunately, graphic designers don't command the same automatic trust and respect that other professionals such as doctors and even architects receive.

If your clients are forming erroneous narratives about your work perhaps you need to start speaking their language. Are there any comparisons you can make for rhetorical purposes? For example, can you explain that a clear hierarchy of design elements is as important to the layout as an effective triage system in the ER? Maybe draw some similarities between clean modern design with the way an operating room is prepped for surgery; extraneous items are put away so that the room is uncluttered and organised.

The caveat is that it's probably best not to overdo or place too much emphasis on these comparisons. They are a kind of bullshitting that I think is acceptable when dealing with difficult clients.

Medical professionals may not be particularly interested in what you think is beautiful, but they will listen if you explain what is effective and why it is. Ultimately, that is what modernist design is about anyway—'form follows function' and all that guff.
posted by quosimosaur at 11:24 PM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is this something I imagined or is this something that's actually confirmed in psychology/psychiatry?

I don't know if you imagined it or not, but it is most certainly NOT something confirmed in psychology or psychiatry. In general, despite FBI profiling shows to the contrary, psychiatry and psychology are not nearly this specific in this way.
posted by OmieWise at 5:04 AM on June 25, 2012

I'm currently hiring a graphic designer to redesign a web site (I do programming but know that design is a different skill) and our goal is to minimize and present less information. We want the primary call to action to be effective rather than letting it get swamped up in a sea of text and images. In years past the site was designed with the opposite instructions to designers.

So I've seen it both ways from the other side of the table. When I cared little for negative space I cared too much for all the parts of the message. Today I know which part of the message matters (or so I imagine). I don't feel that my mental state is much different but I feel like I gotten wiser over the years. In another five years when the current crop of clients are due for a facelift on their designs it will be interesting to see if some have come around to your way of seeing things.

Incidentally, designers love it when you ask for minimalist design and a focused message. I'm confident we are going to knock it out of the park this time around.
posted by dgran at 5:21 AM on June 25, 2012

I think it's a combination of what Thorzdad described, clients wanting what they think is the "most" for their money, and horror vacui. Artistically, it's not associated with narcissists or egoists, but with outsider art in general. (Also Victorian art and Medieval European art from the middle ages.)
posted by fireflies at 12:27 PM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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