“White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.”
~ Jan Tschichold
The term white space comes from the early days of printing when everything was printed on white paper, meaning any part that didn't contain text or an image was literally white. Nowadays it could be any colour, as countless magazines and websites show.
Some people have called it 'unused space', which misses the point entirely. A good design - be it graphic design, industrial design, or architecture - will use white space very effectively. It's an essential part of the design, not an afterthought.
Designers don't use white space just because they can't think of anything else to put there.
The use of white space in a design not only makes everything a lot easier to see, it can highlight the essential elements and present information and features in a much more accessible, understandable manner.
A lot of people have suggested that use of white space is ideal for, and extensively used by, upscale brands and marques, although I'm not convinced it's only the preserve of products aimed at the rich and (supposedly) glamorous. I can understand why people may think so, as poor, cluttered and disorganized design all too often appears on products of equally low quality.
But the use of white space goes beyond aesthetics.
Increased comprehension, increased satisfaction
In a study carried out by Witchita State University, Reading Online Text: A Comparison of Four White Space Layouts, the researchers found that the use of white space affected not only user preference, but also user performance.
Using four layouts with differing margins and leading (the space between lines), the study found that "the use of margins affected both reading speed and comprehension in that participants read the Margin text slower, but comprehended more than the No Margin text." They further found that "[p]articipants were also generally more satisfied with the text with margins. Leading was not shown to impact reading performance but did influence overall user preference."
If you're a web designer, the implications are pretty obvious. If you want people to spend time reading what you've written, absorb the information, and enjoy the process more, white space is very much your friend. If people spend more time reading about you, and consequently understand more about what you're offering and why, they're more likely to choose you.
Decent use of white space in graphic design - be it a book, website, brochure, or poster - is a lot easier on the eye, and therefore easier to make sense of. It gives the immediate impression that the person behind it is organized and thoughtful, often leading a user to consider them to be more professional and, perhaps, trustworthy.
A cluttered, poorly organized layout, on the other hand, could quickly turn off a user as it's hard to digest and navigate.
White space for objects?
There's no reason why the same principles for using white space in graphic design can't be used in industrial design and architecture - and they obviously are.
Some of the most timeless designs are by designers using a simple aesthetic, like Dieter Rams, Mies van der Rohe, Naoto Fukasawa, John Pawson, Tadao Ando and Jonathan Ive.
Each of these designers, and many more besides, makes use of uncluttered, intuitive designs that create a sense of space, highlighting the essence of the design without making it cold, uninviting, or simply boring.
Mies van der Rohe summed up this approach with his famous quote "less is more", with Dieter Rams updating the idea with his equally famous quote "less, but better."
The use of white space in architecture can take many forms, including large windows giving a sense of air and light and unadorned walls - often light in colour - creating a sense of space. It can extend to the interior design, where lower furniture and uplighting is often preferred as it make rooms seem much larger and more open.
Zen and the art of appeal
The use of white space isn't just for minimalists trying to bring a bit of pseudo-Zen posturing to their designs: it can not only attract customers, but make what you produce more understandable.
Surely that's better making people tired when looking at your designs, or confusing them with something cluttered and messy.