White space: Why less often means more

Recently, we presented two design options for an annual fund direct mail piece. Our client vetoed one of the designs because it had “too much white space.” Her target audience—alumni—“hated white space,” she said, because it’s “wasteful.”

We heeded the client’s input and further developed the alternative design. The remark, however, stuck with us. Not because it was unusual, but rather, because it wasn’t.

Over the years, white space has weathered numerous attacks upon its good name. Many people think that it’s pointless, unnecessary, a waste of space. Others think that it’s too expensive, particularly in this economy, and view cutting white space as a way to cut costs.

The truth, however, is far from this (false) perception.

What is white space?

White space, also known as negative space, is active, unmarked space in a design or document. White space is active in that it is created on purpose, for various reasons, both aesthetic and practical. (It’s also important to note that white space doesn’t have to be white; it can be any color.) 

Communicate more effectively

At its core, the purpose of design is to communicate. As we create a piece for a client, all elements of the design—the layout, colors, content, etc.—are chosen to convey a specific message to a specific audience. 

In his July 2009 article “Whitespace: Less is More in Web Design,” Steven Bradley explains, “All design is an attempt to solve a problem. Graphic and web design aims to solve the problem of how to communicate effectively. Crowding too much information on a page does not communicate that information clearly.”

Too much information can confuse, overwhelm, and ultimately turn off your audience. Take, for example, the following two magazine spreads, which we’re using to compare readability. Which one would you be more likely to read?


This spread is from Wired Magazine. Though the content is good, the reader doesn’t know where to start. With the article? The lists? The pull-outs? The layout is designed not for readability, but in order to convey the Wired brand and ethos.


This spread is from CASE Currents. It’s elegant and simple, and the reader knows exactly what the article is about and where to start reading.

If your audience has to work too hard to determine what you’re communicating, they won’t read your magazine, visit your school or donate to your annual fund.

Add value to your brand

White space adds class to a design. If a design is clean and easy to absorb, it looks more professional. According to Bradley, “More whitespace is seen as upscale and can position your brand with a higher end market … Leaving space empty can actually add value to your brand.”

Think about a cluttered house as opposed to a carefully decorated one. Which one are you more likely to admire? A design piece reflects the character of your institution. If it looks unprofessional or disorganized, so, too, will your institution. And people will not give money to an unprofessional organization.

A design that’s overly busy can also look cheap (usually because it is). While cramming more words onto a page can save money in the short run, in the long run, it’s not nearly as effective. Says JP Jones, in her September 2008 Designer Daily guest post, “On Making Good Use of White Space,” “marketing experts will confirm that the more chaotic a piece is, the less likely it is to generate funds.”

It’s all about balance

Yes, design is about communication. But smart design is also about looking good while communicating. White space provides balance and flow to a design. It allows for unity, all of the pieces fitting together in a natural way (as opposed to being forced or crammed).

In simple terms, white space makes a design more approachable. And people will be more likely to look at—and read—an approachable design.

Busy, unfocused design:


Design that effectively uses white space (studio-e design for Susquehanna University viewbook):


Before you reject a design due to white space, take a moment to consider what its purpose may be, from unity to balance to more effective communication.

Tell us about your publications. How has negative space been a positive for your institution?

artistic process / design