The Sound of Silence

The Sound of Silence

Note: Recently, unbeknown to the other, Melissa and Lisa each wrote down their thoughts about the concept of "whitespace"— that's how important of a design element it is. The following is Lisa's take; you can read Melissa's perspective here.

One of the things that strikes me the most about art, about design, about what I see on the page or the screen is what I don't see. They are the moments of blankness and breath. The moments of pause. Moments where one can absorb and process before moving on.


Whitespace (sometimes referred to as negative space) has long been an essential element of art. It's the reason for intermissions during multi-act plays, It's the difference between a comedic skit being funny or falling flat. It's what distinguishes a page with readable lines of text from a mass of jumbled letters. Whitespace can lend both levity and lightness to a message.

When used appropriately whitespace is what gives a design structure, hierarchy and organization. With this framework comprehension is made possible. Whitespace is also what can transform an okay design into a truly great one.

I like to think of whitespace in design as The Force. It's there; it's ever-present. It's the glue that binds. But sometimes people don't believe in it, or they choose to ignore it, or they fear it. If design had a religion, whitespace would be its god.

Let's take a look at the role whitespace plays in the following example that presents the same word in the same typeface and font size. For all three figures, the whitespace is the area around the word "open," the area between the letterforms (kerning), and within the letterforms (counterspaces).

In Figure A, the word "open" is in the middle of the page and the surrounding space is fairly even. The message here is simple, straightforward, maybe even a little boring. This could be a sign hanging on the front door of a coffee shop.

Compare this to Figure B where a liberal use of whitespace between the individual letters gives "open" a second meaning, creating a visual play on the word.

In Figure C, the placement of "open" in the bottom right corner gives visual weight to the area in the top and left. It becomes something. And the lack of space between the "n" and descender of the "p" create tension at the edge of the box.

It's relatively easy to incorporate whitespace into your materials, even if that is a MS Word document or a presentation slidedeck.

  • First respect whitespace as a design element in an of itself. It's not something to be afraid of.
  • Resist the urge to fill your page or screen with as many words as you can, with unnecessary decoration, with audio fillers, with "making-your-logo-bigger" afflictions. It all just becomes noise and static that drown out your message. When the eye or the ear cannot find a pause, it grows weary or does not know where to even begin.
  • Look for ways to use negative space as points of rest and relaxation for the eye or as points of tension to move your design from static to dynamic.
  • Increase the size of your margins and the spacing between your lines or between paragraphs in your text document.
  • Add more margin or padding around images so text or elements have room to breathe.

Protect whitespace as a valuable tool for message organization, structure and hierarchy. Help others to see that what they can't see might be the most important way your message can stand out.