Fred Showker at graphic-design.com sent me ten questions about design and space in readying his book review of my The Elements of Graphic Design 2nd Edition. Brief excerpts: “All through Elements of Graphic Design we are reminded that the ‘empty’ space on the page is another very important design element – possibly more important than the other ‘stuff’ the client wants there… if you only own one graphic design learning book, this has got to be the one!” Thank you, Fred.
1. What is white space and why is it important? White space is the space that exists, most frequently behind and around forms, in a work of art or graphic design. When white space becomes a more active element in a design, it appears in the foreground and is said to be “activated.” White space is important because it refines a design and gives the other elements, image and type, room to exist. Ignoring white space is like ignoring the room in which you are positioning furniture. You can do it, but it isn’t exactly the sign of a professional room decorator.
2. What are the three raw materials of graphic design and visual communication? Image, type, and space. Thoughtful design utilizes all three as equal constituents. Going a step further, superb design occurs where these three elements merge: where type becomes image, where image becomes space, and where type becomes space. This requires abstraction which, because it affects legibility, is considered poisonous by many. That’s a big mistake. Legibility alone doesn’t ensure that anything will be read, only that it can be read.
3. What is the difference between “nothing wrong” and “something right” with a design? Having “nothing wrong” with design is a very low standard indeed. I suppose having a reasonably descriptive (sometimes even “pretty”) image and some words that more or less describe what a story is about, presented legibly and in order of importance qualifies a design to have “nothing wrong.” But is that all there is to graphic design? Is that all there is to visual communication? Ask instead, what is right with this image? Does it reveal the story? Are these words the most provocative to arouse self interest in the reader and make them want to continue deeper into the message? Beyond legibility, how do typeface choices further the message or its delivery or the experiential brand of the sender? Common sense and logic play roles in determining what is right with a design. Designers should always be prepared to describe why their design decisions are “right thinking” rather than designerly whim or based simply on feelings and liking it. Doctors can’t apply cures based on whim or feelings, they have to have a bit of science behind their decisions. Designers similarly solve problems – communication problems – and our solutions must be based on the content and our understanding of what motivates a reader to engage with and retain a message. Feelings can be a component, of course, but ought not be the whole process.
4. Let’s talk about history: when was white space invented? Background space has been around since the very first marks on cave walls, c150,000 years ago. White space has been squeezing itself into our graphic design toolbox ever since: as spatial separators between words c800ad; as creative and useful margins for notations c1300; as a fully participating third element as of the early 20th century. You might say white space was “invented” by the Bauhaus practitioners in the 1920s, though their work was an evolution of several art movements in the preceding two decades: Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, DeStijl, and Constructivism.
5. Let’s talk about art: what is white space equivalent to in other arts? Counterform, which is a perfectly legitimate term in graphic design, too. There are dozens of artistic examples of counterform in The Elements of Graphic Design. Here are a few (l–r): Siena’s piazza, Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 63, Franz Kline’s Slate Cross, Ted Noten’s Superbitch Bag, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure No.3 (Two-piece), 1961
6. Let’s talk about law: is it really a crime to misuse white space? No, it isn’t a crime. But it is a sign of design mediocrity. Sensitive use of space – between elements as a separator and as a unifier – is the mark of a professional designer. Merely pushing image and type objects around without sensitivity to space is a serious handicap. With regard to form, how image and type objects relate to each other is a question of spatial relationships: next to each other is in two dimensional space and overlapping is in three dimensional space.
7. Let’s talk about food: it is said white space makes a design “tasty.” True? ¡Dulce para los ojos! Translation: “Eye candy.” Very true. This is a stamp I use when a student project exceeds my expectations. Activated white space is invariably a part of such work. Fine restaurants do not pile food on a plate: they place the goodies on a larger plate than necessary to set off the great food from its surroundings. Such use of space says, “This is special and deserves your attention.”
8. What is “hidden” white space? Space that is behind figures. It is “hidden” because it isn’t noticed. If it isn’t noticed, what role has it got as a true player?
9. What is wrong with filling in all the space? Filling in all the space is a great way to fit everything in, but that isn’t what readers want. Readers want the most information with the least effort. So filling in all the space is a problem in that it doesn’t provide a reading solution. Filling in all the space may be a solution for the sender, but is rarely one for the recipient. Which is more important?
10. If white space is so important, why aren’t there any empty pages in your book? There are six: page 4 is a picture of empty space; page 18 is completely blank save for a bold horizontal image poking into it (and getting significant visibility thereby); and the versos of the four section dividers are largely empty in order to break the pacing of and stand out from the book’s spread-to-spread fullness.