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A blog about branding, marketing, and design, mostly through the lens of practical psychology, intended to be a resource to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Unless otherwise noted, all articles are written by Nyla Smith, owner of n-Vision Designs. {Subscribe to the RSS feed here: RSS}

White space is your friend — Minimalist design

Nyla Smith | Thursday, June 16, 2011

Every so often, my dear hubby comes home with a new addition—be it a kitchen gadget, filing cabinet, piece of furniture, etc, that was "just too good of a bargain to pass up."

This is generally what happens next: I look at it, look back at him, look around at our already full home and say, "Where exactly are we supposed to put this?" His response, "I'll make it fit, I've got a plan." See, he considers himself a master engineer when it comes to "making things fit".  When we're packing up the car for a road trip, sure, that comes in handy. When it comes to our living space, well...not so much.

His philosophy is: as long as there's a single inch of empty space anywhere from the floor to the ceiling, that space can be filled.

My philosophy is: de-clutter, de-clutter, de-clutter.

Yeaahhh, see the problem here? 

Now, I wouldn't label myself an interior designer, but the principles of design are certainly not just limited to paper or a computer screen. Many of the same concepts that apply for graphic design apply to our physical surroundings, and why wouldn't they? Design affects our experience, regardless of what it is that it being designed, whether it's a room or a website. Our brains still have to process the visuals. So let's talk briefly about visual clutter, white space, and minimalism.

Visual clutter is distracting and (for me) increases stress

In my office, when my desk is full of scribbled sticky notes and papers in disarray; and when my filing cabinet drawers are open with folders sticking out; and when my work table has open books and writing instruments and rulers tossed on it haphazardly—well, I feel more frazzled and stressed than usual. Conversely, when all surfaces are clutter-free and tidy, it's a much more pleasurable environment to work in. It's as though the physical clutter around me causes mental clutter in my brain. This makes perfect sense, when you think about it. Everything in your field of vision has to be processed by your brain. If you have a task to do, you will be able to perform that task more efficiently if your brain can focus more energy on it. If your brain has to also process everything else that is in your field of vision, it will require more energy to focus on the task at hand. (The folks over at ionpsych.com wrote a great explanation of what happens when our brains are visually overstimulated: Visual clutter: it's worse than you think. I recommend you check it out when you're done here.) So, de-clutter your space, de-clutter your brain.

The same holds true for graphic and web design. Have you ever had a flier placed on your car windshield that looks like it was created by someone hopped up on caffeine? With everything on the flier trying to get your attention using large font sizes, bright colors, rainbow gradients, and starbursts all over, you don't know where to focus your attention. When your brain tries to process such a thing, I imagine the "chaos" alarm starts sounding. See, the brain likes order, not chaos.  Nine times out of ten, that flier gets a mere second of your attention, and if it's too convoluted, you throw it out. Talk about ineffective. If you want to make a point with your flier (or advertisement, or website, or whatever), make it easy to process—make your point clear, and don't crowd it out with other stuff.

White space: an oasis of nothingness

Nothingness. That doesn't actually sound like a desirable thing. But it is! And let me tell you why. It's one less thing for your brain to process, which means:

  1. it gives your eyes (and brain) a chance to rest (white space is soothing); and

  2. it inherently directs your attention to something that's actually important. 

(By the way, white space isn't necessarily always white, it's just the term used to describe negative space...the blank areas of the page where you don't have anything else.)

We've all played "Where's Waldo?" at some time in our lives. The objective is to find the man in the red and white striped shirt who is hidden in a crowd of other people and objects. Here's a thought, how much easier would it be to locate Waldo if there were nothing but white space around him? We would immediately focus in on what we're looking for without wasting time processing everything else (...of course, that wouldn't make for much of a game, but that's not the point here).

White space + Minimalism = BFFs (or besties, if I may)

Minimalism is an art movement that is defined by reducing something to only its necessary elements. Minimalism causes one to focus only on what's important, and nothing else. No fancy frills just for the fun of it. No impulse to fill every empty space with something...anything. Nope, nothing is included that isn't functionally relevant. So of course you can see how minimalism and white space go hand in hand. 

In my portfolio, you won't see much strictly minimalist design. That is because each individual project and its objectives dictate the style in which it is displayed, and minimalism isn't always appropriate. But that doesn't mean I don't use the principle of white space. On the contrary, it's impossible to design a piece without considering its white space. The amount and placement of white space affects balance, focus, legibility, and clarity. The funny thing is, not everybody appreciates white space, or understands its usage as a specific design decision. I think this stems from two things:

  1. Designers (oftentimes inexperienced ones) who have used white space ineffectively, creating an unsettling impression that something is "missing" from the piece.

  2. The layman's mindset that, "well you started out with a blank slate; you should be able to fill it with something brilliant. If you leave too much blank, it's because you weren't creative enough to come up with something to fill that space. I mean, really— I could've done that."

But in truth, white space, used correctly, is one of the most powerful design elements there is. In addition to clarifying the focus, it can give a piece a more upscale and elegant look. In contrast, design that is too cluttered can sometimes look amateurish. This famous Volkswagon ad is a great example of using white space effectively.


(photo source)

Though white space is inherently passive, it serves to passively point you to what's important. You immediately see the little car in the corner and "Think small" at the bottom. In a time when VW was competing against larger-sized cars wanting you to "think big," this ad makes the opposite point quickly and powerfully—bigger isn't always better. Less is more.

Minimalism: love it or hate it

When I tell hubby that I need 'white space' to breathe, he looks at me funny and says, "Um, I can breathe just fine."  I say, "No, I don't mean literally; there's just too much stuff around me," and he says, "but look how nicely stacked all the stuff is." By the time I start ranting about visual clutter, brain overload, mental claustrophobia and appreciating the simple things in design, I'm quite sure he's already tuned out. (And yes, this happens every time.)

If I were to characterize the two of us as art movements, I'm Minimalism, and he's more like abstract Cubism:



Minimalism Cubism
Kasimir Malevich. Black Circle (1913) Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians (1921)

One is clean and focused; the other is busy and visually stimulating. There is genius to be found in both styles, and each has its place, both in graphic/web design and in interior design. Though I will maintain that minimalist tendencies are usually more effective, I will also say that one is not inherently "better" than the other, and many times what style you like simply boils down to personal preference. However, when it comes to my surroundings, I prefer ample 'white space.'

Will I ever see the day that my husband is converted to a minimalist? Well, I'm not counting on it, but hey... a girl can always hope, right?

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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