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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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Filed under Graphic Design