Why we need white space

by Intersectionist

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.