White space is the space between or around enclosed, defined graphic elements on a page. It’s not literally everything without ink on it (or all the white pixels on a screen), but it’s zones of space that are left blank intentionally in order to bring balance and cleanliness to a piece. And it’s not necessarily white. It can be any background color, or even an image or photo with content that’s generally atmospheric but not specific. It’s sometimes referred to as negative space or blank space, too.
Why is it necessary?
White space helps direct the viewer’s eye around a page or screen. It allows the prominent things—text, images, graphics, etc.—to stand out. It says, “don’t look here,” so that other objects can say, “look here, instead.”
It can be small, like an empty area along the bottom of an ad between the copy and a logo. It can be tiny, like space between lines of copy or even space around individual letters themselves. And it can be big, even to the point of being the largest element of a page. Remember Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ad? Brilliant use of white space. All you see is the car and the prompt.
The ad’s white space forces you to focus on the image, the headline, then the body copy. There’s no price, no showroom location, no phone number (or, today, no website), no extra information. No one’s in the picture looking at the car, there’s no house in the background, nothing. Even the logo is secondary to the rest of the content. It’s just the essentials. It's gutsy. And it works.
Everything doesn’t need to be as sparse as the VW ad, but we can all learn something from it. Its content has been boiled down to only what’s absolutely critical.
So how can you use white space to be sure your viewers see what's most important?
When white space is used well, the single message of a piece is obvious. There might be multiple graphic elements—a title, body copy, an image, a logo, contact info, and white space—but the message should ring loud and clear. How does the white space give the tagline room to stand out? How does it provide a buffer around the product so viewers know what you’re selling? How does it protect the call to action from the body copy? White space is one player among many, and all those players should all disappear into the message itself.
Good white space doesn’t have to be broad areas of empty space. It’s most often subtle, woven delicately into a piece. And when it’s used well, it leads to a balanced layout, where graphic elements and white space exercise a back-and-forth, and the viewer has no trouble moving through the content.
I know what you’re thinking—you want to maximize space, right?
If all you see when you look at white space is paper/screen you paid for that’s not getting used, let’s consider instances where a lack of white space is part of the design strategy.
Consider the classified ads in a newspaper, or the weekly mailer you get for your local grocery store. Those pieces are typically filled to the edges with copy, pictures, and information. On the grocery mailer, different sizes and colors are used, giving it an active, frantic feel. On the classifieds page, all of the visual elements are similar in size, sort of blending into one large mass. For both, viewers really have to commit to sifting through the content if they want to glean anything.
The very purpose of both of these types of pieces is to maximize content in the space provided. They eliminate white space intentionally. For both of these examples, nothing on the page is more important than anything else, so it’s all crammed together. Viewers know and understand that, so they’re comfortable engaging with these pieces with that in mind. It works.
You’ll even see this done in high-end design. Paula Scher created a hugely successful look for the broadway show, Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. By cramming words, colors and images against one another, at angles and different sizes, she conveyed a kinetic energy that matched the show itself. In this example, it’s not critical that all of the copy gets read—it’s only important that it’s there. It’s part of the message. The message isn’t, “read all of these great reviews for this show,” but rather “this energetic show has too many reviews to even fit on the page.” The elimination of white space is completely strategic.
So if your intention is to inundate the viewer with messaging—if the literal inundation is part of the message itself—then, by all means, go for it.
But remember that maximizing space in this way is the exception, not the rule. Most likely, your project has one single goal—get people to donate, advertise a single product, communicate an idea—and that goal shouldn’t be crowded out with offers and contact info and by-the-ways. It should stand alone.
Next time your designer shows you something that feels sparse, give it a second. Think it over. Pay attention to where your eye moves. Write down your single, overall objective for the project on a piece of paper, and refer to that as you review the design. Remember that viewers are overwhelmed on screen and in print every day, and that less is often more. Breathe. Consider the role of that white space. Imagine how the viewer will interpret the piece. And then trust the viewer to fill in the blanks.