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The terrific value of inversion thinking

Sometimes when there is too much clutter, there is no clear thinking. Like in designing, where we need to value the negative space, we need to pay attention to negative space in thoughts as well.

December 19, 2020 / 01:41 PM IST

“It’s just a joke, I can delete it.” -Jacob

“That doesn’t mean it goes away.” -Andy

Have you seen Defending Jacob on Apple TV? Jacob is a teenager who is accused of killing his classmate. Andy is his father and, as the title suggests, the eight-part series is about defending Jacob. Jacob, like any other teenager, has made social media posts that direct the court’s discussions towards him being the culprit.

Andy, when he discovers the mistake, confronts Jacob on his post to which Jacob replies that he can delete the post. Teenagers may not understand that deleting or undoing doesn't mean that the damage caused by that act can be undone too.

Not just teenagers, even adults are not trained to look for negative space or invert their thinking. In this week’s edition, the last edition* of Twenty Twenty, I want to bring to your attention something which we do not see easily, which is thinking in inversion mode, thinking upside down. Andy can see that for his son, he can see the impact of those posts in courtroom discussions.


Inversion or turning upside down is explained nicely in creative designs. Before I take you to inversion thinking, let us see what negative space means through visuals in design.

Artists, photographers, painters, web designers understand the concept of negative space in their designs and in their creative work. Negative space, when given attention, makes the design unique. By definition, negative space in a design or in a photograph is the space around and behind the object. This is the empty or the blank space in the art form—it is in a painting, a photograph, a logo design or a page on the mobile app. The area is designed in a manner that the object stands out. Imagine a web page with a lot of images and text and no empty space in it? The page loses your attention.


The negative space gives a form, a perspective, a proportion or placement to the object in the frame. The negative space exists only in relation to the positive space. There is nothing in design called a negative space in the absence of the positive space. It is like the Yin and Yang—without one, the other doesn't matter.

The negative space can actually be a designer’s strategy. An artist can focus on the negative space as the composition strategy and use the space to make the work stand out distinctively. Use of negative space or the prominence given to it creates unique work as seen in some real-life examples here:

In logos

FedEx: The white arrow between the E and the X, once seen is never forgotten. The logo has won ample design awards and is constantly featured in 'best logos' lists. The logo was originally designed by Lindon Leader in 1994.

Formula 1: This clever negative space logo, with a number 1 in white space, designed by Carter Wong studio, served Formula 1 well—it was in use from 1994 until 2017.


On book covers

Testament: Noma Bar is well-known for his negative space imagery and the cover he created for Margaret Atwood's The Testaments is no exception. Look closely at the hooded figure, for example, and you'll see another figure hiding.


In photographs

New York City by Steve Kelley

59 (1)

...still waiting by Nathan Kendall


Attention to the negative space is a necessity in design. Ill-defined negative space leads to clutter and overload of information. As Aarron Walter, author, Designing for Emotion, says, “If everything yells for your viewer’s attention, nothing is heard”.

Our thinking is like that. Sometimes when there is too much clutter, there is no clear thinking. Like we need to value the negative space in designing, we need to pay attention to negative space in thoughts as well. It is called inversion thinking. And, like negative space can be a designer’s strategy, inversion thinking can be used as a thinking model at times.

I read about inversion thinking in an interview with Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway Partner. He said, “Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”

Tell me where I am going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. The maxim for inversion thinking. Apparently Munger picked up inversion thinking from German mathematician Carl Jacobi. Jacobi said hard problems can be solved by inverting them. His thought was “invert, always invert”.

Inversion thinking is not setting up a goal and thinking backwards on how to achieve the goal.

Inversion thinking is different. In inversion thinking you actually turn the situation upside down and completely reverse the equation. Like in forward thinking, you think about how you will succeed, in inversion thinking, you think how you will fail. It is similar to the negative space in any design.

Inversion thinking is when you use the negative space as the design focus, reverse the focus from what you want to attain to what you do not want to attain.

In a crude way, if I ask how one can get infected with COVID-19? The answer would be by not wearing a mask, mixing around in a large, unknown crowd, by not following social distancing, etc. Somehow, this question has greater power to nudge people who avoid masks than making a simple request to wear the mask. Asking this question is inverting the problem.

By inverting the problem, you outline the results you do not want. This helps you plan your process to avoid those unwanted results.

How and when to practice inversion thinking

While Munger practised and talked about inversion thinking in his investing decisions, in my view inversion thinking can be brought about while facing a dilemma. In situations of complex problems or uncertain situations, one can invert the problem and start from the end instead of starting from the beginning.

Tip 1:  Saying no is a step towards inversion thinking

Sometimes we do things we do not want to and regret later. Taking too many things on the plate is an example of creating clutter, whether in work life or personal life. Just a no, a simple refusal to do another work or another social gathering helps in removing the clutter. A no is similar to the negative space in a design. It always exists with a yes, like the positive space always exists with the negative space. We just have to learn to focus on that.

Tip 2: Many times avoiding stupidity is a better option than trying to be smart and brilliant

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”— Charlie Munger

Inversion thinking helps one avoid being stupid. Like, in Defending Jacob, if asked what series of actions will lead to Jacob’s conviction? The answers could be media reports, what his friends said, his past behaviour, his social media behaviour, etc. Therefore, his father is worried about the social media post. Jacob only wanted to look smart and made a funny post. Being stupid and keeping quiet would have been a wise step.

Inversion thinking also has the ability to make you hold two opposite point of views. These opposing views firm up your decision in the best direction. For example, if you invest in a company you are in love with, you should practice inverting your decision. How will the business, say a biscuit company, will have the lowest market share? By not focussing on distribution, by not marketing the products and by not having a sales team. If you can evaluate your investment decisions based on these parameters, you just practiced inversion thinking.

Inversion thinking is an asset. All that we need to remember is “tell me where am I going to die, so I will not go there.”

*The next week’s edition will be a review edition, not a new column

** The cover design has the Apple logo, an example of negative space— this was a tribute paid by Team Apple on Steve Job’s death.

(Vishakha Singh, author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.) 
Vishakha SIngh
first published: Dec 19, 2020 08:28 am

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