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My Problem With White Space

posted by Matt Ward on Jun 2, 2010.

In this article, I make a confession that would likely be difficult for any designer: I have a problem with white space. Beyond that confession, however, I also go on to explain that problem, where I think it stems from, and some things that can be done to alleviate for those who may share this issue with me!

Have you ever noticed that knowing something on a theoretical or conceptual level and actually being able to implement it can often seem to be completely disjointed? For myself (and likely many other designers), the presence of white space can be just one such issue. Now, I know that white space is an important element in layout and design. Yet, somehow, it seems that when that empty space is sitting there, staring back at me, I find myself struggling with the need to fill that space.

My Problem With White Space

My Problem With White Space

I know it shouldn’t be that way, but I’ve myself in that place over and over again. I’ll be working on some sort of design, whether it be a promotional, printed piece or a website, and there is some empty space. I will look at that space, and find myself unintentionally wondering: what can I put there? How can I fill it? For some reason, there is a lingering part of me that simply cannot abide that vast, white emptiness.

Obviously, this is a problem. The moment we start adding things to a layout simply for the sake of filling up space, we are ultimately compromising the integrity of the design. So, I find myself in a continuing battle to overcome the problem of white space, which is what I would like to discuss in this article.

While most of what I want to talk about is founded on my own experience, I don’t think I’m entirely alone in this. All you have to do is look around the internet at the tons and tons of gallery sites that have sprung up from every conceivable corner. Though most of these are filled with really lovely designs, many of them employ colours, gradients, textures or patterns to fill in the background. Still others have complex graphical headers and footers that do a great job of filling up space.

Now, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with these designs. That would be pretty hypocritical, given that my own site design uses some of these same elements. I just have to wonder, based on my own experience, how often are these elements used because others share this problem I have with white space?

White Space vs. Negative Space

Before going any further in this discussion, I want to clarify something. In many cases, the terms white space and negative space can be used interchangeably for the same basic concept – that being the empty space between design elements. Strictly speaking, this kind of space does not necessarily need to be white. It can be any colour at all, and could probably even be filled with subtle texture or pattern. The emptiness is defined neither by ink (with print) or light (with display), but by the distinct lack of content or other major elements.

Normally interchangeable terms have different connotations here

Normally interchangeable terms have different connotations here

For the purposes of this discussion, I would like to stick to calling that particular type of space negative space. Why? Because what I’m talking about is not just negative space, though that is part of it. What I’m really talking about, is space that is literally white.

Why is this distinction important? I would like to suggest that that the biggest problem is actually that I face is at its strongest when the space in question is actually white.

But what is this problem, exactly?

The Great White Emptiness

This may sound a little odd, but I think that when all is said in done, the source of this problem is that white space is scary.

Of course, I don’t mean scary in the bone chilling, shiver down your spine kind of way. It’s more of a general uneasiness that actually exists in more than just design! For an instance, for an author looking at a blank piece of paper, an empty word processor document can be intimidating, especially when you find yourself slamming up against that thing called writers block. An author may ask questions like: where do I start? What should my first sentence be? Do I even have the skill or expertise to write this?

For the author, the emptiness can seem to reflect lingering feelings of inadequacy. The same basic idea can also be applied to the artist with his or her blank canvas, and as we’ll see below, possibly even the designer.

Yet, this problem with whiteness stretches even beyond the realms of the arts and creativity, into the natural world itself. I live in Canada, and during the winter we get this white stuff called snow. It falls from the sky, and as it accumulates, it creates a great white blanket across everything. In the city, it’s a nuisance that needs to be removed, but out in the country, well that’s a different matter entirely.

In the country, the wide open fields become that empty space. The familiar becomes obscured beneath an expanse of whiteness. It’s beautiful in its own way of course, but (at least for me) there remains something vaguely troubling about it, something that yearns for spring, and the filling in of those empty spaces.

If you think I’m being a little melodramatic here, you’re right. I am, and it’s entirely intentional, because I think it helps to reinforce my main point. White space can be incredibly intimidating, in a number of different circumstances, and design is no exception.

The Issue of Design

In the case of design, I think that part of that fear (if we can call it that) actually stems from the act of design itself. As designers, we are being paid – either by clients or by a full time employer – to create something that is distinctly visual. We want to put forward the best possible work, and I think that we often look at white space as somehow undesigned, almost like a wall that the painter forgot to paint.

This IS a design

This IS a design

That’s just not the case. As I wrote about in a recent article, design is about purpose, intention and content. It has nothing to do with filling in as much space as possible. Instead, it’s about making intentional decisions about what elements to include and how to arrange them, all with the focused goal of supporting some form of content.

If a significant amount of white space helps a design to achieve these goals – by attracting attention to content through visual contrast, for instance – then it is actually very well designed. In a case like this, white space is not something to be ashamed of. It shouldn’t make us feel like we’ve left anything out, or come up short as a designer!

Overcoming the Space

Okay, so we’ve established that there is a problem with white space, and that the problem is that it can be unnerving for me, and possibly some other designers. I’ve also suggested what I think to root of the issue might actually be. Now, I would like to look at some of the things that we can do to help combat this strange sense of discomfort.

Learn the Basic Principles of Design – There are some basic design concepts that every designer should know, or at least be getting to know. Things like balance and contrast, size and shape are all important to consider. If we understand how these things work, and how they impact composition, I believe that our designs will becomes stronger, and be able to stand on their own. This, in turn, will improve our confidence as designers, allowing us to stare that white space boldly in the (metaphorical) eye without feeling the need to somehow fill it.

Here are some great articles to read about the fundamentals of design:

Understand the Use of Negative Space – Although the use of negative space is, itself, one of those basic principles of design, we might also want to take the time to look at the concept itself more closely. If we understand these principles, that empty white space that we’ve been talking about might not seem so intimidating.

Again, there are some awesome articles that can help with this:

Check Out Some Awesome Websites – There are lots of beautifully designed websites that just allow negative space to remain simple, unaltered white. Taking some time to really study these sites can be hugely beneficial on two counts. First, it can be encouraging to see how these designs can work so well within their white space. Second, we can see how different principles are used in tandem to create a beautiful overall design.

Here are some of my favorites:

FINCH

FINCH

Astheria

Astheria

A List Apart

A List Apart

Drawar

Drawar

Andy Rutledge

Andy Rutledge

Be Intentional – Lastly, probably the single best way to overcome an uneasiness with white space is to actually sit down and actually try to design something that makes effective use of white space. Wherever we would normally feel the urge to fill something in, try leaving it white. Concentrate on designing with solid principals rather than popular trends.

Then, we can do do one of two things. Either make ourselves vulnerable and ask for constructive criticism some of our respected peers. Or, if we don’t want to lay yourself out there quite so openly, set the design aside and come back to it in a few weeks. We may be surprised by how well it works when we pick it up again!

Conclusion

I feel that this has been a really different sort of article, and to be quite honest, I’m not exactly sure what to expect in terms of reception from you, the reader. I suppose that this is at least partially symptomatic of the fact that I am openly admitting to one of my own shortcomings as a designer.

That’s not something we do very often. It was an interesting experience though – introspective, a bit difficult at times, but ultimately somewhat cathartic.

Now, of course, it’s time for the always-present wrap up question. And I bet you know what it’s going to be! What about you? Have you ever felt yourself struggling with the desire to fill that white, empty space simply because it was white, empty space? If so, how do you deal with that struggle? Please do feel free to share!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Jun 2, 2010

Lucas Cobb Design says:

Great post Matt and thank you for linking to my article as well.

As to the question, I have always envied those designers who do have a grasp on white space and seem to design in that style effortlessly. I have yet to grasp the skill and hope I do some day. Until then, I try to steer clear of white space.

Jun 3, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks for the comment Lucas. And no problem about linking to the article. It’s a valuable resource!

Jun 2, 2010

Josh Sadler says:

Great read!

I too have the need to fill up white space! We should form a support group.

Jun 3, 2010

Matt Ward says:

White Space Fillers Anonymous?

Jun 3, 2010

Aidan says:

I think making use of white space is an art and a skill that need some skill to master.

I agreed with you that we have to be intentional on what we want to do with the white space and not to succumb to the temptation of gluttony and greed.

I have wrote an article about the seven sins that designers committed and it could worth a read.

Thanks.

Jun 3, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hey Aidan. That’s an interesting article you wrote. Thanks for sharing. Yes, it’s usually best, from a design perspective, to avoid cramming as much material as we can into our designs, which is what I assume you mean by avoiding “the temptation of gluttony and greed”.

Jun 3, 2010

kko says:

I just find that I’m perfectly accepting of white space but in the back of my mind know that the client will see it as dead space want to fill it which makes me think that I HAVE to fill it…I wonder if there are any articles out there on how bad clients get you into bad habits…

Jun 3, 2010

Matt Ward says:

I don’t know if any articles about the relationship between bad clients and bad habits… but that would certainly be interesting wouldn’t it?! :)

Jun 3, 2010

Damian Herrington says:

Great article Matt and your not alone! I totally agree, as a designer I find it very difficult to design something that doesn’t have anything, always wanting to add something.

Jun 3, 2010

Jun 3, 2010

Amy says:

When I was in college, all my professors waxed lyrical about the value of negative space, except my printmaking teacher, who never met white space she didn’t hate, and insisted on a thumb print or other deliberately placed element be added if we had the temerity to include any white space in our prints. I never understood what the heck she was trying to teach me, and I was lucky to pass her class.

Jun 3, 2010

Ross Johnson says:

I know the feeling. Don’t forget about micro-whitespace, a lot of designers completely miss this aspect of whitespace.

Jun 3, 2010

Polly says:

Wonderful article, and very true! I have the same problem – every time I notice that “empty” space, and every time I wonder “Hmm, should I put something there?”

A friend of mine (a mathematician) once said an interesting thing about this. He told me, “It’s a good thing trying to fill the white space, that means you’re human. Humans are pragmatical creatures.”

I think he was right, I just try not to be TOO pragmatical… Fighting your own brain is fun :)

Jun 4, 2010

Emmet says:

Great article! So often I’m told to fill in white space in design. Most of the time, the client prefers the original design that utilises white space, but they always demand to see it filled up with textures and colours anyway!

I love the design of your blog and how it uses negative space so well! It’s very unique I think, compared to a lot of the blogs you’ve linked to above (which are still beautiful, don’t get me wrong).

Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work!

Jun 7, 2010

Joe says:

Great article. I struggle with this as well, especially on client work. I seem to have the general feeling that the client won’t understand the use of whitespace and think that the whole piece is too under designed and not worth their money. This is an assumption on my part, I’ll admit. In my mind I am just avoiding an unnecessary conversation explaining why I didn’t fill a particular space. I’m slowly changing my ways though.

Jun 8, 2010

Ralph says:

Interesting….Every inch of my first blog had something on it. I’ve traded that design for something much more simpler and, oh yeah, plenty of white space. I think it makes it easier for the reader to stay focused on the content. I’m still tempted to fill the space with something but I have to resist the temptation. Love this post!

Jun 10, 2010

Ken Reynolds says:

Another interesting read.

I sometimes feel pressured to fill space because a lot of clients see empty areas as waste.
It takes a certain amount of bravery to stand by minimalist design, but at it’s purest the white space is doing more work than the contents. The space around other design elements focuses the attention meaning the elements of the design have to be spot on for the overall look to work.

It’s said less is more, but the less has to be exceptional to justify itself.

Jun 10, 2010

Russell Bishop says:

Thanks for the great article, Matt, it’s great to hear some new ideas on the use of white space. I personally feel that if you’ve cleverly used white space to draw attention to certain areas, or just to let the design breathe, then this should be quite easy to translate to the client. I fully understand though that when you have just a lot in say, one particular section of a design, you can feel that it’s a risk that the client just may not “get”.

Just a heads’up, the ‘comment’ field in this form is broken in Firefox 3.6.3, Mac.

Jun 10, 2010

Alex Charchar says:

“the emptiness can seem to reflect lingering feelings of inadequacy”

I think this knocks it on the head. It took me a while to get my head around why white space often works so well and, for me, what it comes down to is confidence in what I put on the page and the dance that happens between those elements.

More often than not, it seems as if what designers are trying to do when they fill in the white space is to hide the importnat features of their design — the exact things that should be shinning.

The key is to understand how those elements can work with all that white space, rather than against. looking into a lot of what the modernists wrote about and did in their own designers helps a great deal — Jan Tschichold, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer and so on. I’ve found that going back to the masters of minimalism and white space, it’s easier to understand where they were coming from and how we can work with their ideas.

Interesting article! And i love the dramatics, very nice :)

Jun 10, 2010

Bala says:

Good article. We found ourselves in a situation where our genre (urban apparel) is rarely represented by clean negative or white space. In the midst of that struggle, we came up with this: http://madmonkeyinc.com/ what do you think?

Jun 10, 2010

Darek says:

Nice read – but I think its important to remember that if you’re frequently having this problem of ‘what to put in this empty space’, it’s a clear sign that your entire design process is fundamentally flawed. At that point, you’re decorating, not designing.

This problem of whitespace needing to be filled – it’s a problem that is created solely by a designer’s doing within the layout that they’ve created. It’s not a fundamental issue to be questioned – its simply a corner that inexperienced designers paint themselves into time and time again.

If your form adheres to a natural function, and your overall concepts are well planned – you’ll find that your design will no longer be forced to fight with its own content. Solve problems first, make things pretty second.

Jun 10, 2010

Alaina says:

Very interesting article. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I’ve always had a love of white space even before I could verbalize its importance. I will admit that it often takes on forms aside from being ‘white’.

When the temptation does strike to fill it I remind myself of the cluttered, messy sites I avoid if possible and that all of the UX research I’ve read tells me not to overload people with too much information at once because it simply can’t be absorbed. Since I naturally tend towards using it, though, that might not be enough of an incentive for those at a support group level ; )

Jun 11, 2010

Chris Yerkes says:

This has plagued me for a long time too. I initially didn’t realize it until my girlfriend, who specialized in print, told me some of my designs felt incredibly crowded…and i realized she was right. Now it is always me asking myself…”could I use a little more white space here???…maybe just a little more?” when I make a website.

I now find myself noticing it more in my own designs and I’m beginning to actually develop a major “visual distaste” for it when I see it in the real world.

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