It’s a classic client situation in the design world: the designer works hard to create a beautiful, spacious, readable layout, and the client immediately asks, “Can you fill up that extra space? Just find a photo of something…”
Designers know something is wrong, but sometimes they’re not sure what to say. So they find a cheap stock photo of a handshake, a computer keyboard, a multicultural business meeting, or a “futuristic” Photoshop collage—and grudgingly clutter the layout they so carefully composed. Sometimes they even preemptively give up (“the client won’t go for it…”) and never present the option they think is best.
Perhaps there is no industry more hard-wired to fill up every inch of space in a layout than government contracting (where I work). I suspect it has something to do with the risk-averse government culture, uncertainty about communications goals and messages, or pressure from the American public to eliminate waste. I’ve even worked on a book project with a client so afraid of the perception of waste or error that they required us to put the words “page intentionally left blank” on every page without text.
As irrational as it seems, I think clients’ tendency to fill white space is understandable. At least, if you realize they think of white space in the same way you think of empty space on a shelf at Wal-Mart, or in the back of a pickup truck, or on your computer’s hard drive. In other words, there’s a fundamental assumption many clients make: that space is, by definition, unused. Space, to them, is nothing more than the absence of content. In their minds, space is waste. But clients aren’t on a malicious campaign to deny designers the satisfaction of beautiful layouts; they simply have a common misunderstanding about the role of space in effective design.
Clients have reasons for what they do—not always good reasons, but real reasons nonetheless. It’s a designer’s job to understand those reasons, clearly articulate the role of white space, and graciously persuade clients to adopt the better approach.
Here’s why we need white space: value is measured by impact, not volume. If your goal is to present as much information as possible in the amount of space you have, of course it makes sense to fill up every possible space. But design isn’t about simply transferring information; it’s about making an impact. Clients aren’t just paying for space on a page or website or exhibit; they’re paying for effective communications—and sometimes less is more effective. You get far more impact by saying less, with power and elegance, than saying more with mediocrity.
Before switching to the design program, I was a piano performance major at George Mason University. One of the most important lessons I learned was the role of silence in music. Have you ever heard a great classical musician perform? What makes them great is not just their ability to play notes, but to carefully time the spaces between them. They’ve learned to play their instrument like they breathe—breathe in, breathe out. Silence gives meaning to music.
The same goes for a great speaker. If their goal was simply to to fill the allotted time, they would say everything they possibly could, and never pause to let a point sink in or to catch their breath. But great speakers aim for maximum impact and audience comprehension, not just word delivery. Great writers do this too. They avoid run-on sentences and edit their writing because people need space in order to absorb the message. Sometimes the more you say, the less any of it means.
White space is the visual version of a speaker pausing for effect. It’s the stage for the actors. It’s the black sky that makes the moon look brighter. It’s the dramatic silence before the solo. White space (when used properly) sets the stage for your message.
Space is not waste; It has a role that’s every bit as important as text or images. Space gives visual context to the content. It tells the audience what’s important. White space is not just about a prettier layout. It’s about effective communication for the client’s audience.
Of course, just like any element of a design, space can be wasted or misused. And sometimes a sharp-eyed client calls us on it. But when there’s a reason for white space, we have to be ready to graciously persuade. We’re not fighting the client by arguing for white space. We’re fighting for them—helping them understand what will help them most effectively communicate to their audience.
Very well said (from this article):
Creativity requires focus to be successful. It must have a singular voice to communicate clearly and with purpose. Design by committee almost without exception results in watered-down solutions drowned by conflicting feedback.
The goal of graphic design is not to have everyone like the result. The goal is to have the target audience love it.
I once heard someone say, “Creativity isn’t something you do; it’s a way you do something.” I think they got it right. Creativity (or innovation—one of the most dominant buzzwords of my generation) has virtually no value as an end in itself. It’s simply a new way of doing something worthwhile.
I’m a passionate advocate of innovation—at least, as way to challenge potentially damaging assumptions, explore possibilities, reframe questions, solve problems, or discover unappreciated beauty. I’ve spent much of my career learning how to encourage and foster innovation. But I’ve been thinking: maybe those of us in the “creative industry” should stop and consider what it’s for. If creativity is primarily the way I do something, what is that something I’m trying to do? Is it worth doing?
What causes are most worthy of your innovation?
Note: this article assumes that you don’t always have the opportunity to choose your own clients, and find yourself building relationships with clients who don’t understand what designers do or why it matters.
In my observation, complaining about clients is one of the most popular designer conversations. There is no shortage of horror stories, and it seems like everyone has them. I’ve told my share. There’s even a very popular—and funny—website devoted to (dissing) them.
And there are truly bad clients, who don’t care what you think, who don’t care about their audience, and have unusually bad taste. Hear me on that, because you might not like what I’m going to say.
Truly bad clients do exist, but I think they are far more rare than we think.
It’s just way too easy to blame a bad client relationship on a bad client, when we’re the other half of the situation. I think we designers often fail to demonstrate sincere concern for a client’s audience and goals, and fail to graciously, persuasively articulate the rationale behind our design choices. Clients should trust designers to do their jobs—we’re experts in design, which is why they hired us in the first place. But in relationships with clients who are misinformed or uninformed (not hostile), I think we need to do a better job defending our decisions in a winsome, persuasive way. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we think that our choices are merely “good taste.”
Clients tend to think we’re just bring a different (and sometimes better) set of preferences to the table, and our value is reduced to taste. If we buy into the notion that all we have to offer is superior taste, we have a pretty weak argument for why clients should listen to us. It’s their taste versus ours. From their point of view, why should your (supposedly subjective) taste be trusted over theirs? If it comes down to taste, they win; they’re the ones with the money. If clients think we’re just insisting on our preferences, no wonder some of them think designers are arrogant. And a host of self-congratulating, out-of-context design contests and client-bashing websites doesn’t help.
So in order to gain greater trust and influence, we’ve got to demonstrate why our choices are more than subjective taste. Everything we do as designers has a reason (at least it should!). Every font makes more or less sense given the message of a piece, the constraints, desired audience reaction, and cultural context. Every image helps or hurts your message—with its style, composition, subject, cultural perception, etc. Even color choices aren’t arbitrary; you choose this or that color because you want to communicate energy, or conservatism, or youthfulness, or the brand’s traditions, and so on. They’re the factors you already take into consideration when you design something. And those factors can be persuasively articulated and defended.
We’ve got to show that we really care about them. We’ve got to show that we know what we’re talking about. We can’t assume clients understand the design process or rationale.
Even simply taking the time to think through those reasons and explain them to your client will demonstrate that it is not merely a matter of personal preference. You can show that you’re working hard to use all your tools and knowledge to effectively communicate their message. As a client, wouldn’t you want to listen to someone like that?
Like any relationship, client relationships take time, thoughtfulness, and hard work. They don’t always start out healthy. But most relationships—given empathetic investment and a commitment to demonstrating sincere concern for the client’s ultimate success (not just short-term demands)—can change. “Bad clients” can turn into great clients. I’ve seen it happen many times. We have to be willing to work through the rough patches, rather than resorting to gossip and complaining.
Trust me; I often obsess over great design. I work really hard to make sure I get the details right. I push back when necessary to make sure my designs are as good as they can be. I think truly good design is critically important. And I know truly bad clients really do exist. But as someone who has spent the past ten years in the design world, I think we need to reexamine whether we’ve really done all we can to understand our clients’ points of view and earn their trust with gracious, persuasive explanations.
Good client relationships are about the big picture and the long-haul. We work through the problems. We work to see it from their point of view. If we care about people, and not just our portfolio, then client relationships are no exception.