Subtraction can be Mindful

Allowing the (white or black) spaces in life to exist.

Find The Five

I teach how to tell visual stories with data. One of the examples I use to illustrate the visual design principles is the picture above of a matrix of numbers. I put it up on the projector and then ask the participants to tell me how many number 5’s are there in the matrix.

As you can guess, they all struggle for a minute or so. By then one or two (diligent) participants would have managed to count them all. And they will happily shout out the answer. 24.

I then use that as a base and walk through some of the principles of visual design. Proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast and so on. Contrast is one my personal favourites as it really makes this example shine. As with most things in life, contrast can make it easier for us to focus and see the what is hiding in plain sight.

Contrast Contrast really makes this example shine.

But that is just the start. The topic I really want to explore with them is — Subtraction. What we if remove everything that is not needed and just allow the essence to be in focus. What if allow only the 5’s to exist in the matrix. What if we give ourselves the courage to allow empty and open spaces to exist — in a presentation slide, in a data chart or within our own lives.

And I use the term courage deliberately. Because it does not take a lot to add new things / possessions / clutter in our life. But it does take a lot of courage to remove them and allow the (white or black) space to exist and even increase.

“Addition is mostly mindless, but subtraction can be mindful.”

Subtraction Subtraction is one of the key principles of my life

What we really need in life is not a lot. Healthy food, homely shelter, basic clothing and simple relationships is all I think we mostly need. But we have mindlessly added a lot more in to it. New exotic and junk food, fancy and decorated possessions and gadgets, branded clothes and complicated relationships keep getting added to our life endlessly.

I call these additions mindless because they are happening by default, virtually on auto pilot, with a certain lack of awareness about why we are doing them. But there is a chance that subtractions can be mindful. It requires effort (at least for me) to make these empty spaces exist. Whether it reducing unnecessary possessions, unhealthy food, extra commitments, clutter in design, or even the clutter in my head — it is a very mindful process for me. It takes effort and I am aware of it every time I do it.

Don’t just remove things for the sake of it. Be aware of it, every step of the way. And if your idea of subtraction is to make what is left come more in focus — your subtraction is also mindful.