I want you to imagine a statue. An aged bronze sculpture of a young girl, possibly eight years old, in a long dress. She stands about 50 inches, so roughly four feet tall.
Her head is cocked to the left, a pensive, sad look on her face. Both elbows are pinned to her side and her forearms stretch upward, her palms open to the sky, a bowl in each hand.
As if she is feeding the birds.
You probably recognize this statue. It was created in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson. It sat in a cemetery, unnoticed, however, until 1994 when it appeared on the cover of the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
On the book cover, in the foreground, the sculpture stands alone. In the background, scattered sparingly, are tombstones. Trees draped with Spanish moss flank the sides.
It’s a spare photograph, making it an exquisite example of negative space used to accentuate the focus of the photograph: which is the sculpture. The content.
Negative space misused
Now imagine you open a door and there stands Bird Girl in a closet full of dusters and furs and floggers and abandoned lamp shades. Now it is you cocking your head, trying to make out what she is and why she is in a closet in the first place.
That image — that image of Bird Girl in the closet — if you saw that on the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” it would have flopped.
At the least it would have communicated a very different set of expectations about the content of that book.
But the photographer behind the book understood what he was doing. He understood the impact of negative space on his subject.
Don’t make this mistake when thinking about white space
In the print and web world, the term “negative space” is normally labeled “white space.” And it would be a mistake to call it “blank space.”
White space serves a purpose. It aids readability. It gives a page a classic, rich, elegant appearance. There is nothing blank about it.
White space is nothing. White space is the absence of content. White space does not hold content in the way that a photograph or text holds meaning and yet it gives meaning, through context, to both image and text. In fact, white space can make or break the effective transmission of image and text.”
Nor does white space overwhelm, but rather invites the reader into the text.
The problem print magazines like Woman’s Day always fall for
Right now I’m flipping through a copy of “Woman’s Day” — don’t ask — and every page is crammed with text and images and color. Space is at a premium, so there is no sparing the white.
But that’s not the case online.
For example, look at a site like Robert Bruce’s, “Unusually Short Stories,” a site designed by our very own Brian Gardner, and you’ll see the design is devoted to the words. There is much white space.
Words hold court. And one is reminded of the line in the song “Beyond” by Daft Punk:
“The perfect song is framed by silence.”
A beautiful little essay about copywriters
Which reminds me of a beautiful little essay by Mig Reyes on the 37 Signals blog written in early 2013.
Reyes, who is a designer and is speaking to other designers, writes:
Click away from the pen tool…
Put down your Pantone book…
Stop rearranging your layers…
Close your stock texture folder…
Log out of your Dribbble…
And hug your copywriter…
Designing for the web is still about words.
Reyes punctuates each line with a comparison … one photograph with words, the same photograph without.
And the photographs without the words are meaningless.
Listen, we still need words. I don’t care what they say.
See, even up to now, really everything I’ve been teaching you — about bullets, and subheadlines, and links, and everything I will be teaching you — has and will be a lesson in white space.
A lesson in context. A lesson in control.
This is one of the reasons that I prefer writing all my drafts inside WordPress on my own blog — whether that article will be published on The Copybot, Copyblogger, or elsewhere: I like to preview my article as I write to make sure I have enough white space.
White space between words, white space between paragraphs. White space between sentences.
And when I see a block of text, I break it apart into shorter paragraphs, sentences, words, or bullet points.
Sculpting as I go.
You dear web writer, shape the meaning of your content with the words, but shape the presentation by formating. By the white space.
The two books on web usability you should read
If you want to learn more about this topic, which falls under the discipline of web usability, here are two books I highly recommend:
Better yet, subscribe to Brian Gardner’s podcast, No Sidebar. You’ll learn how to eliminate the unnecessary, increase conversion, design a better business, and build a more beautiful web.
Which is your responsibility, dear web writer.
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