things you need to know about whitespace
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Here Are a Few Things You Need to Know About Whitespace

There are some lessons I had to learn when I was starting out as a web designer that I’ve kept in mind when looking into any sort of design, particularly when it comes to branding my business. If you are designing a document or website, there are some things you need to know about whitespace.

Let’s get some definitions out of the way.

Whitespace is the empty space around words and images on a page.  Whitespace doesn’t have to be white.  It can be any color as long as it has no print or images.  Designers sometimes call whitespace “negative space” because it doesn’t contain any information or graphics.  The negative white space is there to frame and highlight the information in the “positive space”

Things You Need to Know About Whitespace on the Web

If you own a company, you want to get as much information on your website as possible.  The goal for your website is to get the public to understand your mission and what you do.  You want them to be able to find out where, how and when you do it.  Therefore, a website owner might see whitespace as just wasted space.

A web designer, however, is interested in how your website looks and functions.  Is it effectively spotlighting the logo?  Is it appealing to the eye? Does it grab the viewer’s attention? Web designers like to use white space because it looks nice and gets attention.

The website owner and the website designer will have to come together to find the best way to use whitespace to get all the necessary information across in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible.

How to design your website to include more whitespace

Understanding some of the things you need to know about whitespace may make you want to change your site’s design.  But you don’t have to do a major overhaul of your website to bring in some whitespace.  Just following a few guidelines will do the trick:

  • Include a margin of whitespace around your whole page to “frame” the content.
  • Put whitespace around the major images on your site. Negative space around your logo, buttons, and headlines will make them stand out.
  • If you have text on your page, arrange it in blocks with some whitespace around it. This will help the reader be able to scan the paragraphs one at a time instead of feeling like they will have to take in a whole page.  It’s like feeding them a meal in small bites – they can finish one taste before going on to another.

Check out this example of whitespace done well when you consider things you need to know about whitespace on the web:

things you need to know about whitespace
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The copy is easy to scan, nice to look at, and the reader can take in a good amount of information at first glance.

Make sure you don’t go so minimalist that your page becomes forgettable, though.  It is possible to have too much whitespace.

Things You Need to Know About Whitespace in Print

Whitespace is important no matter what kind of document you are designing.

Whitespace in print ads

Different kinds of ads have different purposes.  If you are sending out direct-mail ads to appeal to bargain shoppers, you may not need to use whitespace to grab attention.  These kinds of ads use every bit of space possible.  If the recipient is looking for that service, they will read it and look for coupons and specials.  Here’s an example of a direct mail ad with no whitespace:

things you need to know about whitespace
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A print ad in a magazine or newspaper will have a different audience and purpose.  These ads want to highlight their product and set the tone for how to view it.  These ads use whitespace:

  • To set a minimalist tone.  A logo or tagline surrounded by whitespace can create a dramatic effect.  The whitespace makes the purpose of the ad impossible to miss.
  • To communicate elegance.  Often luxury items from cosmetics to cars advertise using plenty of whitespace, coupled with artistic photography and fonts.  This “macro” whitespace can set a tone of sophistication.

Here’s an example of a print ad that uses whitespace to create a statement:

things you need to know about whitespace
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This is a dramatic use of whitespace.  The focus is on the car, and the viewer’s eyes go from the image to the copy, easily recognizing the ad’s intent.

Whitespace in articles

It’s also important to use whitespace in magazine, newspaper, and even blog articles.  Blocked together, copy can seem boring and overwhelming.  Here again, whitespace can make a big difference in readability.

In an article, you can use either passive or active whitespace.  Passive whitespace is even spacing between the lines to increase readability.  Active whitespace rearranges the page to make it look more pleasing to the eye.  It attracts the reader but doesn’t necessarily make the copy easier to read.

Whitespace in legal documents

As a lawyer, I have to contend with crowded legal documents all day, but even if your work lies elsewhere, you’ve probably been forced to read (or pretend to read) a legal document. The language used in legal documents is hard enough for most to follow as it is.  That’s why in legal documents it’s more important than ever to break up the text into bite-sized pieces for the reader.

In legal documents, you can put micro whitespace in between paragraphs or headings to make the information easier to read.  You can also use micro whitespace in a numbered or bulleted list to break up the copy even more.

And don’t forget your macro whitespace.  A good margin around the page makes your document more legible and easier to comprehend.  Most experts agree that framing the page with at least 1.25-inch margins will make it the most legible.

If you work in law and haven’t explored Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, check it out. His lessons on whitespace stuck with me enough that we revamped our office templates.

Whitespace in business forms

Even in plain old business forms, whitespace can increase the reader’s interest and comprehension.

For example, let’s talk about the company memo.  You told the staff about the mandatory meeting in the memo, but several of them said they didn’t read that part.  You can understand one careless mistake, but why did so many staff members miss it?

Perhaps your memo didn’t use whitespace to highlight the most important elements in the memo.  Your staff skimmed the memo, thinking they read it, but the most important part was buried three-quarters of the way down the page.

In your next memo, be sure to space the paragraphs in groups so the staff can take one chunk of information at a time.  If there is an important event or a new rule you want to emphasize, put whitespace around those sentences to draw attention to them.

Even your company documents will be read and comprehended more easily if they are carefully designed with whitespace.

Conclusion

Properly using whitespace can determine how attractive and readable your document or site will be.  Whether you’re designing a website, an article, or a legal document, using whitespace effectively can help grab and keep the reader’s attention where it should be: on what your business has to offer.

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