White space, also referred to as â€œnegative spaceâ€, is an important aesthetic tactic utilised in a majority of graphical/design illustrations/publications. In its most generalised definition, white spaces are the strategic visual sections of a page/illustration that are left unmarked and thus uncluttered by any specific aesthetic detail. Characteristically, these â€˜blank spacesâ€™ are strategically located, between margins, leading text and sub-sections of a page layout. The true functional beauty of white spaces lies in its rather paradoxical function; it defines and enhances the visual prominence of various accompanying graphical/typographic elements, without containing meaning, context or content in itself. If used intelligently, white spaces aid in the effective transmission of images and text. In the following paragraphs, I summarize the central tenets in the science of white space.
The Game of Brand Identity
In the traditional era of the broadsheet printing press, the real-estate of a page layout was defined by two main elements â€“ Content and Advertising. They were the primary revenue generators and more often than not, generous amounts of space were dedicated towards the latter, to justify the economic ambitions of the publication in question. Over the course of time however, a select group of firms realised the symbolic/semiotic meaning of â€˜empty spaceâ€™ â€“ the logical use of white spaces indicated a publicationâ€™s emphasis on the quality of content over its economic concerns. White spaces thus, even in contemporary design, bear a direct symbolic connection with the values of sophistication, calculated elegance and â€œhighâ€ culture. Here are a few well-known corporate brand identities that have made extensive use of white spaces on their respective websites.
The Game of Hierarchical Significance
White spaces play an absolute role in determining the hierarchical significance of various sections of content on a particular page. In many ways, white spaces direct how and upon what terms we â€œreadâ€ a particular design artefact. They dictate (and thus direct) the visual flow and coherency of a visual composition. Letâ€™s take a look at an example from the Alain Berteau company website, a design agency based in Belgium. Iâ€™ve attached the original version of the website layout (which is really a marvelous example of well-implemented white spaces in web design) and a modified mock-up.
It is apparent that the mock-up skews all the intend streams of communication between website and reader. There is little breathing room due to the clutter of text and images positioned at the top of the website (note: that are cases where â€˜clutterâ€™ can achieve a sense of visual harmony, but there is no space for that here). The reader also faces a â€œreading dilemmaâ€; there are no visual cues/indicators to suggest the proper and intended sequence of reading; what block text should be decoded first. The reader is thus overwhelmed with several sub-sections, which in turns dissolves any thread of effective communication between the website and reader. White spaces are crucial in establishing for the reader a hierarchical narrative of readable components- it â€œinstructsâ€ the reader what to view first and thus influences the context of content.
The Game of Minimalism
Most of us are (I presume) well acquainted with advertisements of the 1950â€™s. Bright, bold colours and larger than life illustrations seem to dominate page layouts, replete with the most clichÃ©d slogans you would ever come across.
Advertisements in the last ten years however have subscribed to a more minimalist philosophy. A look at the Coca-Cola and Southwest Airline adverts today will clearly tell you that white space and minimalism are (at least superficially) natural bedfellows.
However it must be stated that white space is an unavoidable part of design and it is implemented to varying extents under the guise of several design philosophies. The challenge for designers is however, making effective and intelligent use of these white spaces such that it accentuates website legibility and usability.
What are your views on white spaces?
Josh is an academic researcher, specializing in online media and visual design culture. He is currently doing a PhD on youth engagement with new media. In addition to his academic pursuits, he runs Tripping Words a design blog housing an array of opinions on web design philosophy. You can also follow Josh on Twitter.