The Value of Whitespace

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Just because it is empty does not mean it is unnecessary. I’ll demonstrate here, with illustrated examples, the value of whistespace in the practice of design. Whitespace is crucial to making a great impression, encouraging your audience to continue absorbing your message, achieving designs that withstand the test of time and conveying the message you actually intend. By the end of this article, you’ll want way more whitespace.

 

Ipod ad

 

Whitespace might be the most misunderstood of design elements — especially by non-designers. Many designers can identify with the experience of a client wanting to squeeze just a little more text into a confined area by suggesting that they can “just put it up there, in that blank spot”.

However, what the audience and the client may not realize on a conscious level, they do experience on an unconscious level: they like whitespace. It makes them feel comfortable, it feels inviting and they are attracted to it. Consciously they may say, “fill-up that blank space!” but unconsciously they are drawn to and pay more attention to things with a good use of whitespace. (If you don’t already agree with this based on your own experience and observations well, I’m pretty convincing, so read on.)

Is there a role for cluttered designs?

The fact that we are attracted to whitespace does not mean there is not a role for cluttered designs that are choc bloc full of text and images — there is. There is meaning associated with cluttered, crowded, tightly bunched-up design work. If something has meaning, then you may be able to use it strategically to achieve your goals.

For example: cluttered and tightly fit text is often found in promotional materials used to sell stuff by companies whose modus operandi is to compete on price. Canadian Tire, car lot ads, grocery stores and the like give us good examples of this. We have come to recognize this crowded aesthetic and associate it with “getting a great deal”. So when we are looking for a deal on a car stereo we recognize the ads that are promoting those sales. It is like they belong to a familiar “genre” of advertising. This is not to say that these are necessarily bad ad designs (although I am not a fan), but I am suggesting that those designers may have chosen this aesthetic in order to achieve their clients’ goals: conveying to the audience that they are competing on price.

 

busy ceahp looking ads

 

These two ads exemplify the difference whitespace can make to the message.

 

Ad comparison

 

These ads have the same content and use the same photography, but the ad on the left screams "cheap" whereas the ad on the right quietly says "luxurious".

Clutter can be beautiful

There is another more positive meaning that can be associated with cluttered, crowded, full-packed designs: energy. Paula Scher’s (link) designs for jazz and theatre shows exemplify this beautifully. She is conveying the excitement and energy of her clients with carefully designed crowdedness that is beautiful and effective at drawing-in audiences and gaining attention. As you can see from these examples, the “clutter” is carefully designed.

 

Good busy

 

Designers can intentionally use cluttered approaches in their designs to convey such things as kitch, irony, energy, economical advantage, urgency, and likely many other positive and negative ideas. The trick is always to use these tactics strategically to support the goals of the design and client, and not to use them unintentionally or haphazardly (which usually works against those goals).

What does “whitespace” mean?

So what about whitespace? If cluttered and crowded means something, what does whitespace say?

Ahhhh — whitespace. It is like a breath of fresh air, it is like a clean, minimalist room with high ceilings, a still ocean horizon, it is like a new sheet of paper, a fresh notebook, a clean set of sheets, a wide-open field — oh, you get the picture.

What is “whitespace”?

First of all, let’s define whitespace shall we? No, it is not a field of snow or a racist throwback. Whitespace is:

  • The portions of a designed item that are left unmarked — the absence of content.
  • The area around the other graphic elements such as type, imagery, colour fields, line, etc. It is often referred to as “negative space”, meaning the areas around and between graphic items.
  • A compositional element and stylistic tool.
  • Intentional and deliberate space (not the accidental left over space).
  • Whitespace refers to the paper colour, thus may not actually be white. (In some situations it can also be a background flood of printed colour).

 

Mercedes

 

What does whitespace accomplish?

  • Legibility

  • Unity

  • Balance

  • Readability

  • Flow

  • Invites people in

  • Makes the audience feel more comfortable

  • Allows what is often referred to as “breathing room”

 

Nike

 

What does whitespace indicate to our audiences?

  • Higher value

  • Higher quality

  • Luxury

  • Simplicity

  • Sophistication

  • Calmness

  • Spaciousness

  • Design savvy

  • Thoughtful design consideration

  • Attention to aesthetic concerns

  • Status

  • Meaning

 

 

White Space example

 

More whitespace is usually desirable — but not just any whitespace will do, it does need to be well-designed whitespace. It needs to be used in conjunction with all the other design elements at the designer’s disposal (which are: line, value, texture, motion, shape, colour, typography, image, grid, movement, balance, emphasis, and unity.)

 

Lawn Mowing

 

Top Ten Reasons to Love Whitespace

Ok. Here are my top ten reasons why whitespace is SO valuable and should be employed in all visual work (ie: print design, website design, illustration, painting, sign painting, photography, miscellaneous visual project, etc.).

  1. People will like your project more, which means it will get more and better attention.

  2. Your project will feel more sophisticated, considered, well-thought-out, better — it’s best self.

  3. Your audience will be more drawn to look at and engage with it and will form a better over all impression of your brand

  4. It will stand out from other more cluttered projects.

  5. Your project will be more timeless. In other words, it won’t look dated in two years. (But you need more than just whitespace for this, you need a good designer)

  6. It will be easier for your audience to absorb and therefore remember your message.

  7. If your project is for profit you will make more money. Really.

  8. You will feel proud and confident when you hand out your card, give someone your catalogue, or send them to your website.

  9. Your employees will feel more pride in their association with your organization.

  10. You will get lots of compliments on your project. Lots. And that feels good.

 

WWF and Red cross

 

More whitespace please

When compared with projects that lack whitespace, those with it will win every time. The goal of any design project is to align the final visual presentation and meanings associated with your goals, not against them. Using whitespace judiciously and consciously is one important part of the strategy.

In conclusion, say yes to more whitespace.