White Space

Why Did You Get Rid of the White Space?

Marcel DuChamp Self Portrait in Profile

Marcel DuChamp “Self-portrait in profile” (1957)
Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Early manuscripts, which were hand-drawn, illuminated and hand-lettered, often had generous use of white space. Quite necessary, since these books were labor-intensive and took years, if not decades, to produce. The pleasing use of white space was both practical and economical.

Then came movable type. That changed the landscape completely. Paper was rather cheap, especially when compared to vellum and parchment. Although engravings were expensive to produce the first time, they could now be used over and over again. And brother, were they ever! Pictures became selling points. Where once only the wealthy could afford books with images, now printed books were mass-produced and were crammed full of images, borders, and type of all sizes.

Luckily for us all, this didn’t last too long. The books just weren’t, well, pretty anymore! And quite frankly, they were difficult to read. Unfortunately, our modern days of easy access to computer software has allowed anyone and everyone the ability to publish newsletters, advertisements, websites and self-published books. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive to publish printed and electronic versions of the same content. Nowadays you can offer your self-published book in print as well as for tablets of various sizes and formats. This ease of access hasn’t come with lessons in graphic design or typography! Just as in the early days of movable type, there is a lot of ugly stuff out there!

Let It Breathe!

Pattison's Whiskey ad

Pattison’s ad
Courtesy Old Ads Are Funny

Like a crowded room crammed with furniture, knick-knacks and pictures slapped haphazardly on every wall, a page—virtual or printed—needs space. As in a room, a page is easier to navigate when there is space to do so. You’ll hear interior decorators refer to removing clutter as “letting the room breathe!” Same goes for your pages: let ’em breathe!

How do you remove clutter from a page? The same way you remove clutter from anything that is over-crowded: by culling what isn’t necessary. Writers will read their work aloud and listen for stumbling blocks: those unnecessary words and phrases that stop or hinder the flow of reading. They’ll remove them or re-phrase them so that the flow of thought returns. With design, you remove the blocks that hinder the flow of sight. Do you really need that border? Does that rule line stop the viewer dead or does it keep the reader’s eyes moving to where you need them to go?

Another way to add white space is by adding ample margins. You want your page to be framed by the white space. If the type is too close to the edge of a page, the line lengths of each paragraph are going to be too long. This inhibits readability. Your page will look intimidating instead of inviting. It will look crowded and dense. In the case of print, you take the risk of having your copy chopped off when the paper slips on the printing press. Let it breathe!

Are your lines set too close together? In print, this is known as leading. (Pronounced like the metal, from lead movable type.) Microsoft Word and other word processing apps refer to it as line spacing. While there are no rules set in stone for leading/line spacing, you should at least set the spacing so that when you view your page at a distance, the page looks light gray (if using black type on a white page) instead of a dark gray or black mass. How about the space between paragraphs? Are you using ample space there, too? No one dictates that you must use the same amount of space between paragraphs as you do between lines of copy in the paragraph itself. Once again, let your eye be the judge. Your job is to promote readability. Don’t set your paragraphs so they are sitting on top of one another!

Add White Space to Ads, too

Ads need white space, too! True story: while working at the local newspaper, I was assigned to a design team that created automobile ads. I’m not talking about the well-designed slick ads you see in major magazines for the automobile manufacturers. No, we were tasked with coming up with ads for the local dealerships. Many of these guys wanted to feature every car on their lot in their newspaper ads, too! I would set up a nice grid to showcase their cars but that left white space. Throw in a starburst to take care of that! Put a streamer filled with copy set in bold type to hide that gutter! Can we add some more fireworks (or other annoying clipart) to fill any remaining white space? I recall trying to convince a dealer that white space was a good thing. Know what his response was? “I’m paying $10,000.00 for this ad, and I don’t want to pay for white!” If you want to keep your job, sometimes you give the client what they want! So, I got rid of the nice, clean ad I designed and gave him a comic book. No, scratch that. Comic books have white space! As one good ol’ boy production artist put it, I shoveled 50 pounds of fertilizer into a 25 pound bag! (Only he didn’t say “fertilizer”!)

I design direct response advertising, too. Once again, you often have to convince the copywriter and/or client to use more white space. The copywriter states that content is king. Maybe so, but you want people to read that content, don’t you? If the copy is so full of bold text, then you have a big, ugly mass on your hands. Besides, if everything is emphasized (as it would be with too much copy set bold), then nothing is emphasized! Everything carries the same weight. If the copywriter spent weeks researching, writing, revising, and polishing the copy, then certainly the same amount of attention should be spent presenting the copy so that it’s pleasing to the eye so it will be read! The client should be persuaded that his offer will make a lot more money for him if the reader’s eye is lead throughout the piece in a way that everything gets read. White space will keep the reader’s eye comfortable while looking at long blocks of copy.

Learn from the mistakes of yesteryear, don’t repeat them!

Make judicial use of white space in your designs. Your pages will be read, not skipped over, deleted or immediately recycled!

If you enjoyed this post, share it! Click the share button below and add this to your favorite social media outlet. If a point wasn’t clear, ask about it in the comments section. Let’s start a conversation about white space!

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About Keith Koger

Keith Koger is the owner-operator extraordinaire of Koger Creative. Although one heck of a graphic designer and copywriter, he has yet to learn that Star Trek, Star Wars and Monty Python references are the quickest ways to drive away women.

3 thoughts on “White Space

  1. Nice article, Keith! True story, I got an email from a client yesterday that said this about a current project I’m working on.

    In general, we need to use space well, including:
    1. Less white space.

    I don’t think most clients know the value of well placed white space. White space is eye-catching and a reader is more inclined to stay on a page that’s not crammed with words. I agree totally with your view on this! Wish I could convince my client.

  2. Glad you liked the article, Stacie! “We need to use space well, including: 1. Less white space.”? That’s frustrating. I certainly hope that wasn’t one of your high society magazine clients!

  3. Pingback: Fonts and Readability | Koger Creative

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