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.
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.
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.
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:
- The Lost Principles of Design – Fuel Your Creativity
- The Seven Principles of Design – The Art Blog of Emily Gonsalves
- The Principles of Design – Lucas Cobb 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:
- Whitespace – A List Apart
- A Negative View of White Space – FINCH
- Whitespace: empty space? – Andrea Cima Serniotti
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:
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!
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!Post A Comment
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