The Positive Power Of Negative Space

By Karen Cronin | Thursday, September 17, 2015 | No Comments

Maybe you took notice of the over-the-top pullout ad for the new biopic “Steve Jobs” in this week’s Sunday edition of “The New York Times.” It was certainly hard to miss. But considering the splashy, oversized approach, this folded, 8-panel ad contained a surprisingly small amount of actual information, with the inside four panels featuring only full-page photographs of the film’s four main characters.

Why would Universal Studios spend so much money and occupy so much real estate while sharing so little actual information about the film? This is a great example of less is more. In so many ways, that lack of clutter says so much. The abundance of white space is an intentional reference to the classic, clean-and-simple look of anything Apple, and it communicates far more than mere words could express.

Steve Jobs instinctively understood the vital role that white space and simplicity play in design. White space provides a welcome opportunity to take a breath, prioritize and better understand the content on view. It also provides the viewer with an opportunity to interpret the message in a way that makes sense, to fill in those spaces, and come to their own conclusions. This is clarity at work.

I utilize many techniques to help make sense of the information I’m tasked with interpreting and presenting for a particular design. For example, when a project requires an abundance of copy, I may not have the luxury to go with the minimal look and feel of that “Steve Jobs” ad. I deal with that challenge in a number of ways. For example, I can shrink the size of the text in order to open up the white space between the lines. This provides a subconscious sense of space for the reader and just feels less cluttered. Believe it or not, the text is far more legible at this smaller size than in a larger, more densely packed treatment.

Another useful way to utilize white space is to exaggerate the sense of proportion. A compelling headline or a striking image can make a stronger impression printed very large on the page. Keeping the body copy much smaller (and maybe including additional smaller images) creates some lovely negative space (white space), making the page far more inviting and the message that much more impactful.

It’s important to note that “white space” is just a useful term; it doesn’t necessarily have to be white. It’s all about that negative space, the background. It might be a solid color or a simple texture. If it’s designed well, that clear space can be just as important as the featured content.

Simplicity guru John Maeda, a famous fan of Apple’s design sensibility, expressed it well when he said, “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” That’s part of the real genius of Jobs, Jon Ivey and the talented team at Apple. They’ve always been great believers in the power of white space. They instinctively knew what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, what to leave out.

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