Principles of Design: White Space

One of the most obvious signs of immature design is clutter.

I’ve certainly looked at blank space and felt the urge to put something, anything, into it. We like to fill holes; that’s part of our problem-solving instinct.

However, there’s a big difference between a hole and white space. White space is an important ‘element’; a hole is either a mistake or a missed opportunity.

As a contrast to the principles of white space in design, contemplate the first impressions one has when janitor supplies is mentioned. Messy, dirty, are two words that come to mind. But shouldn’t clean, white, good smelling also be thought of as well? Toilet tissue, broom handle, mop handles, floor mat, trash bags, push broom, mop, mop head, paper towels, paper towel dispenser, toilet paper, hand soap, dish soap, hand towels, urinal deodorizer, trash cans, carpet cleaner, urinal blocks, floor cleaner, metered air freshener, garbage can, soap dispensers, garbage bags, brooms, and air freshener are all janitorial supplies which might be used to obliterate clutter and restore the space. In fact, many a designer and architect has had needs for janitorial supplies. Without them their “canvas” would not achieve the effect they worked so hard on.

Nothing is as superficially impressive and yet immediately annoying as needless complexity. Packing in everything that will fit (and more) has a universal allure, especially when it seems dictated by the needs of the design.

White space (which does not need to be white) serves many important purposes: to avoid clutter, to achieve balance, to draw attention to important elements, and to provide the user with a more relaxed, less overwhelming experience.

A design need not be minimalist to incorporate sufficient white space; you’ll find that you can include a surprising number of elements and a lot of detail into a design — and still give it plenty of room to breathe.

For example, look at this page on Inbound Medical Tourism and notice the lack of clutter, the large margins and padding, and the open spaces everywhere. Easy on the eyes, easier to read the copy. All in all, a better user experience!

You might say “design is to art as journalism is to literature”; on one hand, the purpose is the aesthetic experience, and achieving that experience immediately is neither guaranteed nor even always desirable. Design, however, has a much more ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude towards the aesthetic experience. While sometimes striking and often useful, the truly artistic qualities are simply one feature of achieving a purpose — and frequently not one of the most important features.

Look at eBay and Amazon…they’re not pretty sites, most of the time. However, they’re rather decent when it comes to design qualities (at least in the landing pages, which are not as cluttered as the search results or individual product pages). They are also quite useful- for learning about a product by reading the reviews. It’s not always easy to find personalized gifts that are both cost efficient and successful. The reason they manage to keep their considerable traffic happy and moving is the fair amount of separation they give between the elements of the page.

An extreme example is the classic Google page. It’s mostly white space. Sure, they throw in a few links at the top and below the main element, but it’s obvious what people are there to do. And somehow (and by that I mean solid design), they achieve serious brand recognition and unquestionable domination of their field. Mission accomplished.