What is white space?


23 Mar 2015 17 Apr 2017

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What is white space? White space, also recognized by most as negative space, is the unmarked space between graphics, texts, and margins. To be precise, it is basically all spaces that possess absent of contents. Sandy Wheeler argued that, most people do not understand the role of white space and often consider them simply as ‘blank' space.However, in my opinion, this perception is incorrect. Even though white space does not hold contents in the way that a photograph or text holds meaning, it essentially serves to carry meaning through context to both image and text. It is an important element of design which allows the objects in it to even exist. In addition, it may even make or break the effective transmission of image and text.

As designers, we are trained to often use white space where it is appropriate in our designs. This is not limited to only graphic design, but also extends to other types of design such as web, product, interior, architecture, and many others. First of all, let us explore the use of white space in graphic design. White space can be categorized into 2 categories, the ‘macro white space' which represents the space between major elements in a composition, and ‘micro white space' which represent the space between smaller elements, several of which include those between list items, between a caption and an image, or between words and letters and the rest of the small spaces.

White space is also often used to build a balanced and harmonious layout. The white space other than can be categorized into macro and micro white space, both marco and micro white space can also be divided into active and passive white space. The active white space is space which is left empty intentionally. Also, it serves to lead a reader from one element to another. As for passive white space, it is the white space that does not appear to be intentional. In other words, most passive white space is “unintentional” which means it is just the unconsidered space or left over space present within a composition.In my opinion, all white space in a good design, whether active or passive, should be planned out by the designer from the very first. If a designer only planned on the macro white space used and let the rest of the white space unconsidered, it will be just considered as poor design. Passive white space creates breathing room and balance and its role cannot be undermined.

A web design aims to allow visitors to subconsciously develop an impression and predict where the navigation and content areas will be as they navigate from page to page. A well-designed webpage includes active white space as an intentional page element that visually separates the navigation, content, header and footer. Lacking of which can result in the website appearing cluttered, and visitors might feel that the information they are looking for would be difficult to find and thus head to other websites.

Micro white spaces often help improve legibility. Many people disregard the importance of the micro space and always feel that the small little spaces will not make much difference in design. In some cases, white space can be very limited and a lot of information has to be fitted into a page, for example newspaper, yellow pages and etc. When a lot of information is crammed together, the layout will eventually to be appearing messy and hard to read. This is when we, the designers come in to find ways to solve this problem.

One good example is ‘The Economist' newspaper, which has been redesigned as the owner of the company realized that their newspaper design was too heavy and the contents are too difficult to read. This is an important issue as the design and legibility of the newspaper affected the sales of the newspaper. The company hired Erik Spiekermann, a German designer and typographer to search for a solution. In newspaper design, information is often dense and many times, it is difficult to add in additional whitespace because of the content requirements. Spiekermann's solution to this was to use a lighter typeface for their body content with plenty of whitespace surrounding the characters. Spiekermann redesigned the typeface by adding more whitespace to the individual characters while retaining the quirkiness of the original Economist typeface. He proceeded to set the type slightly smaller and using leading. All these small changes added up to create more micro white space to the design, resulting in the content being more legible. The overall feeling of the newspaper was lighter, while the amount of content remained the same.Spiekermann's successful redesign for ‘The Economist' proves that the space between the “itsy-bitsy” stuff can have a big impact on the effectiveness of a design. This concept could essentially be applied to designs for other magazines, yellow pages, the web and other medium that require a substantial amount of texts. Shown below is the redesign of typeface from ‘The Economist' by Spiekermann, illustrating how such small changes could make a big difference.

The images below show two typical spreads, one before the redesign, when ‘The Economist' was printed in black and white with bits of red, and another article after the redesign which has went on to full color.

In addition, white space also plays an important role in brand positioning. On the surface of paper, white space is “that of chosen not to print”. From the perspective of economy and conservation, white space should then be at a minimum, and logically all space should then be used up and not come to a waste. In this case, white space is used for purely semiotic values. It is insisted then, that the image of what is presented is more crucial than what the paper that could save. In countries such as Japan, some printing jobs are very costly as they would still charge for the printing plates, separations, paper, and four-or-more color presses even to print white space.Therefore, average brands that have a limited budget would try to fully maximize the whole paper by including as much contents as possible.

On the other hand, some designers utilize white space to create a feeling of luxury and elegance to upscale brands. With the sensitive use of typography and image, generous white space is seen over several luxury market products. Extensive white space is used in marketing material to sell to the target audiences the idea that the products are of the highest quality and extravagant value. Images below show the examples of white space used in some luxurious brands.

Essentially, it all boils to which target audiences are designers after. There are indeed exceptions of which white space may not be necessary in design. For example, in direct-mail products, designs need to be appeared down-market to work. By adding white space to it, the design would appear to inherit an undesirably upscale quality, which may not appeal to the targeted mass audience in the community.Below is an example of direct mail versus luxury brand design.

The contents shown above are the same, including the text information and image. However, the two designs stand at opposite ends of the brand spectrum. Such comparison illustrates how less white space portrays a cheaper image, while more white space portrays a more luxurious image.

The discussion of white space is not simply restricted to the contemporary. In my opinion, the significance and role of white space has change and evolved over time. According to Ken Kelman, in older days, white space was not considered to play a too important role.However, I believe that designs in the past do utilize white space, such as to emphasize a particular content or object. However, a distinct difference between the use of white space between the past and modern days design would be that older designs tend to cram contents together. Even though compositions and macro white space within designs are considered, micro white space is often less regarded or even neglected. The posters below show examples of older days designs when an entire page is often filled up with text and image. The typefaces used in such posters are often big and bulky compared to modern day designs where white spaces hold more importance. Often, large crammed texts with little white space in between are often spotted in vintage design.

I believe that in today's world with improvement in technologies, better designs have emerged as we designers are able to create even spaces between each lines of text. We are also able to experiment and play around with composition within design with ease, compared to the past when such hardware did not exist. With this, we could create design that look more professional and clean. Over the time, with the good use of white space by designers, more and more people start to appreciate and realized about the importance of white space in design. Therefore, more of better design pieces are born and white spaces are used more often by designers nowadays compared to the past.

Examples of vintage design

Example of modern design

Not every posters of the past disregard the concept of white space. One such example is the poster below, which was considered to be a success in terms of delivery of its message content. This was partly due to the effective and unique design elements employed which were rarely seen in its counterparts during that period. Using short and straight forward text, with ample of white space around the contents, the importance of the contents stood out and its message was effectively emphasized.

Another cause for the change of the signification of white space over time in my opinion is influenced by the changes in human lifestyles. According to a survey by Austin Mott Anastacia, people nowadays are getting busier, more stressful and impatient than ever before. Only 30 percent among 20 000 adults have enough sleep most days and the rest are too busy doing more “important” stuffs such as working, studies, playing games and so on.In my opinion, because of the busy lifestyle, people would not be willing to spend more time on anything else than what they want to do, not to mention spending too much time on an advertisement. Therefore, designers nowadays tend to use more white space and less content for that purpose.

Taking a billboard advertisement for example, a simple, creative and straight forward advertisement is always more successful than the advertisement with a lot of contents as readers would need more time to read and too much contents make the advertisement appear messy. Most readers have busy lifestyle; they would only be willing to spend a limited amount of time on that advertisement. Moreover, billboards are mostly placed along road or highways which made the readers who are travelling in cars have much less time for it. The billboard advertisements would need to convey messages across to readers in a few seconds. Comparing to olden days where most people have more time to spare, they would have a higher chance to spend time on advertisements that are packed with contents. Below are two examples of advertisements for the purpose mentioned above.

Another change of signification of white space over time in my opinion is that olden days design put in as much details to minimize as much white space as possible to represent luxury where modern days designers tend to use as much space for that purpose. Focusing on interior and product design as references, olden days tend to put in a lot of details and minimize white space in their design. Regardless of any country and culture, their olden days designs tend to share this same character. To support my point, shown below are the examples of olden days interior design from a few different cultural background such as Europe, 

Modern designs

In my opinion, olden day's folks appreciate details and craftsmanship very much because with the lack of building and engraving technology and machine exist in the olden days, to have a piece of furniture engraved in detail, it needed a lot of effort, time and labour. Only rich people in the olden days could afford that craftsmanship. In another word, it represents status and luxury.

As the saying goes - ‘less is more'. Such wisdom cannot be more emphasized in the concept of white space. Increasingly, white space is being regarded and recognized as part an important design element, and also a design technique. Once you know how to design and manipulate the space surrounding your content, you'll be able to amazing feats such as giving your readers a head start in your design, position products more precisely, and last but not least, perhaps even begin to see your own design content in a new light.


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