White Space is Your Friend (How To Cure Horror Vacui)

I was flipping through an old design book recently and came across a design principle that is often overlooked in today’s web and print design and that is the idea of white space. White space is the area of a layout intentionally left blank. It is the space between photos, graphics and text. White space is not the same thing as negative space, which is a different concept and may be explored in a future post.

Designers should not fear white space but embrace it as a powerful tool to help the eye focus on the most important elements of a design. Do not allow this ‘air’ to intimidate you into thinking it must be filled with something. Do not succumb to Horror Vacui, a phrase meaning the fear of empty space. I first heard this phrase used by my college art history professor to describe the suffocating clutter of interior design in Victorian homes in the 19th century. Every inch of every surface, be it wallpaper, pillows, upholstery, rugs or lampshades, was covered with lavish brocade and fleur de lis patterns of every conceivable description. There was no place for the eye to rest, no opportunity to examine something of beauty in isolation from others competing for attention.

Today, as then, Horror Vacui survives and must be resisted! You might see an ad, brochure or website cluttered with so many images, graphics or text that it’s hard to know where to look first. This overwhelming and confusing first impression looks amateurish and can drive viewers away. Remember the 3-Second Rule: You only have three seconds to get the viewer’s attention and communicate your message. After that, they move on.

Now you may work with clients or bosses who suffer from Horror Vacui, often wising to fill every bit of available real estate with something, failing to realize the value of white space. They may say, “Why are we wasting all this space? Let’s put something here.” You, in you role as the design professional, must convince them that adding MORE copy, MORE photos, MORE graphics, only diminishes the importance of the content that is already there. Quote the 3 Second Rule; explain the idea of white space; show them examples of horrible cluttered designs; do whatever it takes to convince them that Less is More. Here are two excellent examples of white space used to great effect: the Apple website and the famous Think Small ad for Volkswagon (imagine trying to sell that idea).

Embrace the nothingness. White Space is Your Friend.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “White Space is Your Friend (How To Cure Horror Vacui)

  1. While I possessed the basic understanding of “Less is more,” a concept which you have taught me over the years, I’ve never really stopped to consider the shear elegant power of the absolute minimalist approach. I think the Japanese must have long understood the power of empty space, when we consider the The Zen of a Karesansui rock garden where the eye is drawn to consider the beauty of a single stone or tree against a field of plain yet impeccably groomed pebbles.

  2. I definitely agree that a minimalist approach is probably advantageous for many types of graphic design, although maybe not for all products. I could see where filling a space with garish color and chaotic content might appeal to certain consumers, especially those who relate to that type of art. Think skateboarders, heavy metal rockers, folks with lots of tattoos, people who are into graffiti, or just people who are overload their senses on a regular basis. Even so, there still needs to be a way in a design to accentuate the primary focus amidst the chaotic “noise”. But, that seems doable.

    From a purely artistic point of view, leaving large amounts of white space is purely a matter of opinion. I have done illustrations, primarily scientific, which certainly have plenty of white space. However, in my spare time I do ridiculously detailed images of scenes that I feel are mostly emanating from my subconscious mind. I don’t create these for the purpose of sales per say, although I do sell them. Rather, the experience of drawing them is a necessary part of my life. Having studied in the field of entomology now for over 25 years, I find my drawings and paintings that are often filled to the extreme are comparable to the chaotic assemblages of life beneath our very feet, where there is no empty space. For me, looking at the microscopic world is as natural as drawing strange somewhat surreal scenes.

    I guess what I am saying is that, art has many purposes, one of which is relating to consumers, viewers, buyers, and customers; recording history, providing an outlet for outrage against life, and other social reasons; and maybe more importantly, for the artist to express himself in whatever way works best. For some, this might entail writing a three line poem, which is placed in the lower left corner of a large piece of off white paper, but for others it might mean spray painting every square inch of a wall with neon colored paint. For some, if not many, artists, their ability to create art in their own way is their way of dealing with life’s stress.

    I do know that the three second rule does not have any real meaning at all when it comes to non graphic design type art. I have seen this first hand at opening receptions of some of my exhibitions. I have observed people studying some of my pieces for up to an hour. Now, obviously, I am not talking about graphic design and the need to quickly grab someone’s attention. Just a observation.

    Also, I find it interesting that art critics, such as Mario Praz who coined, or least, perpetuated the term “horror vacui”, seemed to think that the super filled interior design of the Victorian age was suffocating. Yet, the people of that time period seemed to really like this lavish, overcrowded, design style. It seems to me that he was out of touch with what those people actually liked.

    • paulsanderson

      Joe,
      Thank you for your insightful comments. You are absolutely correct in your observation that in certain circumstances, such as art for skateboards and rock bands, chaos-filled space is appropriate, but not for others, such as your beautiful insect illustrations — http://joemacgown.com/Images/scarab%20drawings/Dichotomius.carolinus.jpg — which benefit from lots of white space around them to focus attention on the subject. However, your surreal drawings are an excellent example of a super-filled space used to great effect, setting the perfect mood. I might characterize them as Hieronymus Bosch meets H. R. Giger. Beautiful work.

      Check out Joe’s work at http://joemacgown.com/

  3. Pingback: Post 15: Principles of Design | Grace Martin's Blog

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