A Negative View of White Space

After reading through the article on The Web Design Ledger, “Whitespace: The Underutilized Design Element” I felt compelled to respond and clear up what I feel is spreading misconceptions about design in relation to white space. Note that for the purpose of this article I will refer to white space as negative space. Negative space being the area that is void of elements like type or imagery. Both are accepted terms, but I believe that negative space better represents the design concept.

Positives and Negatives

Let me start by saying I agree with the premise of the article that negative space is an important concept for a designer to understand, so kudos for bringing it up. Beyond that though, there is nothing valid about this piece. My main issue is that the article relies on generalizations about negative space and additionally does not answer the “why.” It is all very touchy feely sort of justifications for it.

The article begins by saying white space is: “…probably one of the most overlooked and underutilized is whitespace. Every design has whitespace, but the problem is that not every design has enough.” I have to say that I see a lot of it in web designs today. Not specifically in showcase gallery folio or agency sites. Visit major traffic sites like CNN.com and the NYTimes.com You’ll find that they have expertly used negative space that balances beauty and content. Overlooked? Not so much.

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One of first things the article talks about is how white space isn’t necessarily white, but then the “good examples” are companies like Apple (known for their “Snow White” design approach) versus big bad Microsoft with the use of color and gradients. To be honest the Microsoft site isn’t bad to me. It also abides by some of the loose rules presented in the article.

Pointing out more negative space in the Pottery Barn screen in comparison to Rooms to Go. Really? It’s somewhat obvious. As designers we can’t stand in front of a client and just say, “Look here, there’s more space, it looks nice. It works because otherwise it is cluttered and sloppy if we put in more of your message.” You need to be prepared to speak about your design based on concepts and fundamentals and the matter of fact theories that they are.

The article concludes by saying “The best way to learn is experiment and study the work of other designs that seem to be getting it right. Eventually you will develop an eye and feel for what is the right amount of whitespace.” This is completely wrong. Blindly copying work and playing around to understand white space? What happened to learning the design fundamentals?

Why? Understanding the Fundamentals

There have been many books and articles written on the various principles of design and theories that relate to negative space and it would be too much to go through all of them here in detail. Looking deeper into these will help you understand and be able to talk about negative space in a more informed way.

There are basic principles of design like balance and contrast that every designer should understand. Being able to master these will allow you to understand and design positive and negative space in a better way. The image below shows how balance affects visual symmetry based on the negative proportions of the space. Emily Gonsalves has a nice summary of them.

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The Gestalt Principles are a set of theories based on visual perception. They were developed in the 1920s by German psychologists to describe how people tend to organize visual elements. Below is an example of the Closure. It occurs when an object is not completely enclosed, but if enough of the shape is indicated then it will be perceived as a whole. You can learn more about them here.

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In designing for something interactive we have to keep in mind usability. Consider Hick’s Law. You can summarize it as: The more options you have, the more difficult and/or time-consuming it is to pick one of them. Exposing too many navigation options on a single screen makes the interface less intuitive and difficult to use. So, crowding the screen not only affects design, but the efficiency in which the user navigates.

Another widely used and many times misunderstood design tool is the grid. Structuring your design is key, and using a grid is an important part of the design process. One of the best resources is The Grid System.

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Although the article does cover typography and readability, there is no real background on why this is important. A few good examples are from studies by Tinker A. Miles, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota who ran them in the early to mid-1900s. A few of the findings show how relevant and important space is.

One finding was that by setting linespacing to a multiple of 1.2 it actually improved the reading speed of text. Now keep in mind the tests were obviously on a printed page, but they do show why space is an important consideration in readability.

Another study Miles conducted was with how the reader judges how much of the page is filled by content. He found that in the case of a card having the same amount of black and white (50/50) it was perceived to be covered 75% by the black. So the printed area was seen as larger than it actually was. This showed that designing a balance in the negative and positive space was essential. The thesis “Effective Use of Negative Space in Graphic Design” by Dong Hyun Lee is a great resource for more information on these studies and more.

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Dear Client, The Benefits of Negative Space

Shoving a lot of content into any screen is always going to be a given. So at a basic level some of the benefits of better use of negative space are:

  • Space for the eye to rest
  • Indication of informational hierarchy
  • A visual cue that there is a break in the content or it is finished
  • Improves overall legibility of content
  • Easier to navigate

This all adds up to a better user experience. Although it’s a bit of buzz-speak it is a term that more clients are becoming familiar with and asking for their websites.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned before, talking to a client and explaining your rationale for designs is vital. As designers we are already seen as the “pick the perdy color guys” to the executives. Like it or not we have to answer in terms they can understand rather than just fluffy feelings. Lucky for us design is based on many tested theories and there is a real foundation to back up the choices we make. You just have to learn it. Hopefully the information here is a good start.