When less really is more

The value of white space

Have you ever tried to read something — an ad, a web page, a bank statement — and felt like you were being visually assaulted, trying to drink from a fire hose? When every square millimeter is chock full of information, it’s difficult to absorb any of it.

There are two opposing processes at work in creating a layout: the intention to offer the highest signal-to-noise ratio, and an unconscious tendency called horror vacui. Universal Principles of Design defines signal-to-noise ratio (in the context of design) as “The ratio of relevant [signal] to irrelevant information [noise] in a display.” The authors note that “The highest possible signal-to-noise ratio is desirable in design” — i.e., aim for clearer content and less clutter. At the other end of the spectrum, horror vacui — “the tendency to favor filling blank spaces with objects and elements over leaving spaces blank or empty”— leads us to cram layouts full of too much text and superfluous ornamentation.

So, while we know that a greater signal-to-noise ratio more effectively gets our message across, we’re strongly predisposed to fill all available space with something. What’s a designer to do? Develop a mantra, and repeat after me: “White space is not wasted space.”

Also called negative space, white space alleviates information overload by giving the reader’s eye a place to rest, allowing the brain to digest what it has just seen before moving to the next piece of new information. Studies have shown that increased white space between paragraphs and in margins (micro white space) can enhance comprehension by almost 20 percent. White space also offers a way to separate information into consumable chunks, helps lead the reader’s eye from one item to the next, and imparts an emotional tone to a layout — for example, spacious versus crowded, energetic versus calm. To keep your audience engaged and coming back for more, navigate past the built-in horror vacui and give them some white space.

Using the gestalt principles of perception (e.g., similarity, proximity), you can indicate structure by using white space. It can create implied paths, and if shaped correctly, will lead your audience’s eye around your layout like a map to buried treasure. As a side note, it’s generally accepted that westerners will read a page from the top left to the bottom right, following a downward sloping s-curve to the right. If you make use of this expectation in your layout, you can almost guarantee your audience will see the most important information.

On A List Apart, Mark Boulton says that “Designers use white space to create a feeling of sophistication and elegance for upscale brands. Coupled with a sensitive use of typography and photography, generous white space is seen all over luxury markets.” As much as we have a fear of empty space, it’s also universally acknowledged that more white space implies higher quality products and content. If you want your audience to respect and trust your content and your brand, give them some breathing room.

It might be helpful to think of your layout as a meal that you want your audience to enjoy rather than to scarf down. Offer your content to them as fine dining, instead of fast food crammed into a box. Give them some separation on the plate, a bit of time between courses, and a feeling of satisfaction (rather than oversaturation) at the end of the meal. They will keep coming back for more.

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Many factors influence the amount and use of white space in a layout, including the volume of content, the choice of typeface (light/heavy, large/small), and the size and treatment of graphic elements. Effective use of white space is more important than straight minimalism. As my co-worker dj said, “Clutter can also be techniques that dazzle, but add no value.” Remember that just because you have the option doesn't mean you should use it. (You can always tell who has just gotten themselves a brand new copy of Photoshop, because they use every bell and whistle available.)

In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Here are some more resources on the value and effective use of white space:

And some information on the gestalt principles in design:

For superb examples of good use of white space (and sumptuous design):

  • Boulton, M. (2007, January 9). White Space. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from A List Apart:
  • Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2010). Universal Principles of Design. Beverly, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers.