The Art of “White Space”

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In page layout, illustration and sculpture, white space is often referred to as negative space. It is the portion of a page left unmarked: the space between graphics, margins, gutters, space between columns, space between lines of type or figures and objects drawn or depicted. The term arises from graphic design practice, where printing processes generally use white paper. White space should not be considered merely ‘blank’ space — it is an important element of design which enables the objects in it to exist at all, the balance between positive (or non-white) and the use of negative spaces is key to aesthetic composition.  —Wikipedia

Yes. I stole that right out of Wikipedia (links and all). It is a pretty darned good description for white space. For those that might think that the space actually needs to be white, well—no. It is just empty space that creates a nice flow of information, provides balance, and can gives the viewer’s eyes a rest from time to time. When there is too much stuff on a page or website, the eyes just do not know where to look. It can be overwhelming and instead of engaging the targeted audience, it will more than likely cause them to cut and run looking for something better. And it does not mean just words and type, but any design element or crazy use of color on the page can be the guilty space hog.

OK designers, how many of us regularly design utilizing as much whitespace as we can? We are all guilty of it, cramming in as much information on a page as possible. Some of us know it is bad aesthetics, some think it is the norm. We have clients that think empty space equals a place to put something, anything. “Put a smiley face there, I do not care. Just fill that @#!$$** space! I’m not paying for empty space.

I have worked for all types of clients, including one several years ago (Client A) that was completely guilty of never providing white space. The words and information were more important to them. I tell you, I saw some type get down to 6 points on pages because there simply was not enough room for everything. Even my consistent pleading with them to lose some information for the sake of leaving some nice empty space was to no avail.

Fast forward to a Client B which is the complete opposite of Client A. This client’s motto is “why add something just for the sake of adding it? Space is good. Drive a single point home, simply, elegantly.” It’s a pleasure designing for this client. I do find myself at times looking at space thinking maybe something should go there. But then I think back to Client A’s philosophy and Client B’s motto. Filling all space with something can be a hard concept to let go after years of designing puzzles to make mass information fit with some semblance of design.

I firmly believe that there is no hard set rule that can never be broken. I have had clients buy a book on design and bring it with them to a meeting only to begin reading from the book that this should never be done, and this absolutely needs to be done, yadda yadda yadda. Like I just cracked myself out of a shell that morning and am completely void of design knowledge. In all the world, is there anything in existence that has only one guide to follow or one way to get to a result? I do need to remind clients that these are only guidelines, not hard and fast rules never to be broken. Sometimes breaking guidelines can make designs more exciting and get people thinking differently.

Examples of Lack of Whitespace

You may think that there is white space on the last example, but do your eyes flow across the page or do they scan all over trying to figure out what to read or look at? And color isn’t the only issue on the first two very bad design examples, but it is one of the most prominent factors in creating a white space nightmare. My type is blue, then red, now it’s green, and it is blue again. Ugh!

Examples of Good Usage of White Space

Apple has always been a leader in good design, both in products and ads. A simple use of color, nice graphic and minimal type has everything the viewer needs to understand what Apple is trying to tell and sell us. The image above for Taken also simply tells us what the movie is about, and that the subject matter is dark by their use of color. Fresh Creative is exactly that — fresh, clean, open and organized. My eye knows exactly where it should go and it does not overwhelm.

Teaching Young Designers

I honestly cannot remember how much was discussed or taught to me in school about white space. But I think this subject is one of the most important elements of good design and should be driven home to every new or budding designer. And we as designers need to guide the client towards white space. It is not always possible as it was not with Client A, but if you can guide 9 out of 10, that is golden.

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LauraMalickSmith
Laura Malick Smith is the Principal Creative at ChikenSkratch Studio (formerly Digitaldemiurge). She has over 25 years experience in design including print, web and illustration, holds a degree from the Art Institute of Colorado and has been know to enjoy a lively discussion or two.
LauraMalickSmith

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