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White Space In Digital Design

21st September 2015 by Josh Beadon

Less is More – Mies van der Rohe
Keep it Simple Stupid! – Kelly Johnson

These ‘design mantras’ are established and well proven principles, drummed into successive generations of design students the world over by teachers of visual communication (and architects, engineers, product designers, software engineers etc. etc.) Less frequently heard, but no less important, are phrases that relate to the control, use and understanding of white space in design. But what is white space? And is it still relevant in our largely digital world?

The eminent and influential twentieth century designer Jan Tschichold famously described white space thus…
“White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.”

Jan Tschichold was a design modernist, heavily influenced by the German Bauhaus movement. Early in his career he authored Die Neue Typographie a design manifesto that laid down strict principles about the use of typography and page layout. It was here that Tschichold demonstrated how ‘white space’ could be used to improve legibility, enhance aesthetic and create stylish ‘designed’ solutions. Successive generations embraced these principles and it reached its zennith with the post-modernist movement, now referred to as the “Swiss International Typographic Style” of the 1950s and early 1960s. Even now, nearly 90 years after it was written, the principles he set down live on.

What is White Space?
Somewhat confusingly, one of the first things to understand is that ‘white space’ needn’t be ‘white’! When Tschichold was referring to ‘White Space’ he actually meant ‘negative space’ – in other words, the gaps and space between graphic elements on a page, so this could actually be any colour. Tschichold understood that the more graphic elements that were displayed and the closer they were to one another, then the more difficult it was for the viewer to make sense of page (or design). This makes complete sense of course - it takes a lot less time to read a bold headline than an entire paragraph for example. He regarded white space as an essential (or active) part of a design for two main reasons.

1. Legibility
Everyone would agree I’m sure, that making something clear and easy to read is important – particularly in business context.
Headlines/Titles - leaving sufficient space around important messages (such as headlines) ensures that they will stand out – it’s a way of providing a visual clue for the reader to know ‘where to start’.
Body Text - equally, having enough space between lines of text and between paragraphs keeps the text looking light and approachable – after all, who isn’t put off when faced with paragraphs of tightly spaced text.

2. Aesthetic
Generally speaking, most people like things that look beautiful, elegant, uncluttered, even pretty. (White) space does this. It allows a design to breathe. Like a frame around a picture, it helps to give definition to the graphic elements that are displayed. As with type, if you cram lots of images together they can become difficult to distinguish, and the inherent impact of each can become lessened.

It is here that I feel I should add a massive caveat. There will always be occasions when tightly spaced columns of text and multiple overlaid images are desired, appropriate and necessary. It why Tschichold’s doctrines are considered principles and conventions, not rules. Indeed, later in his life, Tschichold himself thought his early manifesto was too draconian and to an extent renounced it as ‘design fascism’.

White Space in a digital context
Tschichold’s ‘white space’ principles were laid down as far back as 1929 and related solely to design for printed material. So has it any resonance in a world dominated by digital media? Well in a word “yes”. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it’s more relevant now than ever before. The proliferation of websites, social media platforms, and other forms of digital advertising and the ease of accessing them, means that we are being bombarded with messages like never before.

Engagement
According to several research articles, the majority of website visitors stay on a web page (on average) for less than 15 seconds – some studies claim it’s even less than this. See http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/chartbeat-website-engagement-data-nj

If this is the case (and I very much suspect it is) then adopting techniques that actually help people to find the information they are looking for, quickly and easily has to be a good thing. Take Google for example – the number 1 search engine – then compare it with Yahoo.

 

Technology
A survey undertaken in 2014 concluded that a staggering 67% of web views are made from a handheld device (http://www.motivomedia.co.uk/our-blog/the-handheld-revolution/) and this is only likely to increase over time. The smaller screen sizes and limited memory of smartphones and tablets have necessitated a need for presenting the viewer with less information. It is for this reason, and that mobile users have different objectives than desktop users, typically wanting information in quick, easily digestible bites, that we are now seeing a trend for sites where negative or passive space seen as an integral part of the design.

So yes – less, really is, more…

…white space has, and continues to play, an essential role in all aspects of visual communication, regardless of whether it is presented in printed or digital form.