What is white space?

by Fred Showker

negative space always makes you look Did you look at the white dot in our article icon here? Did you ever have a client ask "What about that blank space?" Did YOU ever wonder what to do with that empty space? It's been asked a million times. We are thrilled to welcome graphic design extraordinaire, Alex White, who will answer those questions once and for all ...

Alex answers the following questions:

1. What is white space and why is it important?

White space is the space that exists, most frequently behind and around forms, in a work of art or graphic design. When white space becomes a more active element in a design, it appears in the foreground and is said to be “activated.”

White space is important because it refines a design and gives the other elements, image and type, room to exist. Ignoring white space is like ignoring the room in which you are positioning furniture. You can do it, but it isn’t exactly the sign of a professional room decorator.

Image, type, and space 2. What are the three raw materials of graphic design and visual communication?

Image, type, and space. Thoughtful design utilizes all three as equal constituents. Going a step further, superb design occurs where these three elements merge: where type becomes image, where image becomes space, and where type becomes space. This requires abstraction which, because it affects legibility, is considered poisonous by many. That’s a big mistake. Legibility alone doesn’t ensure that anything will be read, only that it can be read.

3. What is the difference between “nothing wrong” and “something right” with a design?

Having “nothing wrong” with design is a very low standard indeed. I suppose having a reasonably descriptive (sometimes even “pretty”) image and some words that more or less describe what a story is about, presented legibly and in order of importance qualifies a design to have “nothing wrong.”

But is that all there is to graphic design? Is that all there is to visual communication? Ask instead, what is right with this image? Does it reveal the story? Are these words the most provocative to arouse self interest in the reader and make them want to continue deeper into the message? Beyond legibility, how do typeface choices further the message or its delivery or the experiential brand of the sender? Common sense and logic play roles in determining what is right with a design. Designers should always be prepared to describe why their design decisions are “right thinking” rather than designerly whim or based simply on feelings and liking it. Doctors can’t apply cures based on whim or feelings, they have to have a bit of science behind their decisions. Designers similarly solve problems – communication problems – and our solutions must be based on the content and our understanding of what motivates a reader to engage with and retain a message. Feelings can be a component, of course, but ought not be the whole process.

4. Let’s talk about history: when was white space invented?

Background space has been around since the very first marks on cave walls, c150,000 years ago. White space has been squeezing itself into our graphic design toolbox ever since: as spatial separators between words c800ad; as creative and useful margins for notations c1300; as a fully participating third element as of the early 20th century. You might say white space was “invented” by the Bauhaus practitioners in the 1920s, though their work was an evolution of several art movements in the preceding two decades: Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, DeStijl, and Constructivism.

counterform used in classic art

5. Let’s talk about art: what is white space equivalent to in other arts?

Counterform, which is a perfectly legitimate term in graphic design, too. There are dozens of artistic examples of counterform in The Elements of Graphic Design. Here are a few (l–r above): Siena’s piazza, Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 63, (below) Franz Kline’s Slate Cross, Ted Noten’s Superbitch Bag, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure No.3 (Two-piece), 1961

superb use of white space in counter space

6. Let’s talk about law: is it really a crime to misuse white space?

No, it isn’t a crime. But it is a sign of design mediocrity. Sensitive use of space – between elements as a separator and as a unifier – is the mark of a professional designer. Merely pushing image and type objects around without sensitivity to space is a serious handicap. With regard to form, how image and type objects relate to each other is a question of spatial relationships: next to each other is in two dimensional space and overlapping is in three dimensional space.

eye candy 7. Let’s talk about food: it is said white space makes a design “tasty.” True?

¡Dulce para los ojos! Translation: “Eye candy.” Very true. This is a stamp I use when a student project exceeds my expectations. Activated white space is invariably a part of such work. Fine restaurants do not pile food on a plate: they place the goodies on a larger plate than necessary to set off the great food from its surroundings. Such use of space says, “This is special and deserves your attention.”

8. What is “hidden” white space?

Space that is behind figures. It is “hidden” because it isn’t noticed. If it isn’t noticed, what role has it got as a true player?

9. What is wrong with filling in all the space?

Filling in all the space is a great way to fit everything in, but that isn’t what readers want. Readers want the most information with the least effort. So filling in all the space is a problem in that it doesn’t provide a reading solution. Filling in all the space may be a solution for the sender, but is rarely one for the recipient. Which is more important?

white space ... the misunderstood design element

10. If white space is so important, why aren’t there any empty pages in your book? [grin]

There are six: page 4 is a picture of empty space; page 18 is completely blank save for a bold horizontal image poking into it (and getting significant visibility thereby); and the versos of the four section dividers are largely empty in order to break the pacing of and stand out from the book’s spread-to-spread fullness.

Thank you ALEX !

Think Small VW Ad Thinking white space is a lesson that needs to be learned by anyone who must purvey an important or compelling message to an audience. We've seen the law of negative space proven again and again ... as in the famous Volkswagen ad "Think Small"! The guy from Volkswagen may have complained about "wasted space" he had to pay for. I've heard it a thousand times -- maybe you have too. Yet, that field of white calls so much attention to the photo that it becomes undeniable. EVERYONE who saw this ad looked very carefully at that photo. Then the white space became a powerful magnet that pulled the reader's eye to the headline. In Alex's section dividers everyone seeing these kinds of layouts cannot help themselves from looking at the quote on the left. And, although relatively small in comparison to the page -- that bit of information becomes very, very important, by mere virtue of its isolation.

Alex's answers satisfy the age-old question "what about that empty space?" ... but the above only touch the subject. All through Elements of Graphic Design we are continually reminded that the 'empty' space on the page is another very important design element -- possibly more important than the other 'stuff' the client wants there. And in my design practice, I'm forever urging the client(s) to back off, trim some verbiage, and cut, cut, cut, just so we can introduce some of that breathing space.
      Thank you again, Alex -- for sharing this with DTG readers!

Folks -- if you only own one graphic design learning book, this has got to be the one! Do not delay. They go out of print too quickly for many people who lose out in the end!

cover Elements of Graphic Design, 2nd Edition
by Alex W. White
Paperback: 224 pages; Publisher: Allworth Press; 2 edition; Language: English

thanks for reading

Fred Showker

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