Spring Cleaning: Making Room for Light & White Space

spring light and white space

Though the weather might not reveal it (at least here in the Finger Lakes of New York State, where fresh coats of snow still greet us each morning), the season has changed. Spring is here!

The first thing that rightly comes to many minds is the ritual of spring cleaning — going through your home with the dust rag and floor polish; opening the windows to let the fresh air in; shaking out the well-worn winter sweaters in favor of short sleeves and lighter coats in the closets.

For me, spring cleaning means absolving ourselves of the things no longer serving us. It means making space. It means feeling lighter.

What does this have to do with design, you ask? Everything, of course.

Like we need to make space in our physical and mental environments, we need to make room for light and white space in our designs.

Myth busting: white space

The role of white space has long been debated in design. While some simply prefer to design with more or less white space, greater amounts of it have typically lent themselves to formal designs and luxury brand aesthetics. In my opinion? The Apple and Rolex brands of the world aren’t the only ones who should be maximizing white space.

In fact, simple and uncluttered design — that which strategically uses white space — is one of the most powerful ways to convey a message.

There’s a lingering design myth that we need to bust straight away: white space is not wasted space. White space is as important as logos, graphics, type, and all other elements of design.

What’s this white space?

White space, commonly referred to as negative space, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the space between elements in a layout.

Macro white space refers to the space between larger elements — a logo and a graphic, for example. Micro white space, on the other hand, refers to the space between smaller elements — list items, for example. Both are incredibly important.

The issue really, is this common conundrum in both graphic and web design: there’s so much content to cover and information to convey, and only a limited amount of overall space to do it in. It’s easy for clients to want to fill up every single space until the design ends up looking as crammed as the classifieds.

Strategically using white space

Cluttered design makes for lost messages. Start your spring cleaning by considering two ways to use white space to let the light in on your layout: actively and passively.

Active white space will lead a viewer’s eye from one element to another. Consider a photograph with the subject off-center, looking toward the direction with greater open space. Your eye will automatically follow that gaze.

Passive white space is exactly that — passive. It’s the white space we control when we set margins, typefaces, weights, and leading.

White space is subjective, and therefore there are no succinct rules for using active or passive negative space. That being said, here are two general guidelines to get you started:

1. Maximizing white space means beginning by seriously considering all of the elements in your layout and weighing both their importance and their relation to each other.

2. Acknowledge that white space is one of those elements.

When in doubt, remember this quote from Jan Tschichold, who stated it perfectly in 1930: “White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.”

Give your eyes room to rest

The way to better design is through experimenting with increasing white space. Even the tiniest amounts of white space — the micro of the micro — can make a huge impact. (Just think of newspapers and magazines. The best-designed ones are able to pack in the information without the overwhelm.) White space gives your viewers breathing room. It lets the light of spring in. It offers the eyes room to rest.

Want to learn more about how to evaluate the elements in your brand? Download my free e-book, What Does Your Brand Say? now!

The next time you’re looking at a layout, take note of the use of white space. How does it help the composition?