That "White Space" Thing


One of my favorite quotes from a coworker critiquing one of my designs is:

I'm not really into that whole white space thing.

In my experience, white space seems to be one of the go-to critiques when people are asked to offer their feedback on a design. As a designer who naturally gravitates towards clean, modern designs with lots of white space, I've had many opportunities to describe the benefits of white space to coworkers and clients. 

But white space is more than just an aesthetic. White space is an essential part of communication. At the core of this discussion about white space is the dance between figure and ground:


The idea that a messages's meaning is merely pure content placed on an invisible or impartial canvas is flawed. All messages are intrinsically connected with their medium. Messages are, in themselves, a beautiful interplay between figure and ground, message and medium.

When my coworker said she wasn't "into that whole white space thing," I could have solved her requirement by turning our entire design into a black box...eleminating the ground for mere figure or content. 

This relationship between figure and ground is a key aspect of Gestalt theory. Altering the balance between the two can have a drastic effect on the message.  

Typography gives us an interesting perspective on this interaction between form and content. We find that the balance of whitespace in letterform communicates vital messages, perhaps sometimes even more, than the words (content) that they make up. 

In the example below, we have the same for written in two fonts with drastically different economies when it comes to the letterforms:

The light weight first image (Helvetica Light) should feel more natural than heaviness of the second (Impact). Luxury items and brands often relying on this sense of scarcity in their messaging. This scarcity concept communicates novelty, expense, luxury. Have you ever noticed that the more expensive a store's products are, the less product they actually have display. This is a distinct difference between high end retailers like Nordstrom and discount stores like Ross. 

These examples can help show us that the interplay of form and content  are a core element to a message. Discount retailers intentionally display large amounts of product, while luxury brands implement this scarcity tactic to convey the quality and uniqueness of their products. 

White space, in it's essence, is the result of this interplay between figure and ground. Some degree of white space is necessary for communication:

A black box doesn't communicate "luxury," so a better balance of figure and ground is needed:

Impact as a font does a better job communicating "luxury" than the black box, but it still is lacking. The concept of white space isn't something you can be 'into' or not.  An effective message finds the perfect balance between form and content: