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What to Do About White Space

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2010 at 2:11 PM

Less advertising means smaller issues. In turn, many editors cram more text into less space. But what about white space? Here's what...

By Jan White

Is white space wasted space? Not if we make it work for its living. We must use it as a tool to improve the capacity of the visible page to tell our story both clearer and faster. Used to practical purpose, we don't need to invest vast swaths of emptiness for dramatic contrast. Forget conspicuous consumption. We can hardly afford the luxury of "a place for the eye to rest." Probably never will again. Instead, concentrate on servicing the readers. Use deliberately controlled bits of white space as raw material to lead them to what matters and expose the information in clear, fast, and bite-size chunks.

I'd like to offer 7 reasons for making white space "work" for you:

It Makes You Look

Breaking the expected pattern draws the eye. A little unexpected emptiness in the midst of fullness produces curiosity. Where the norm is tightness, a simple square inch of gap shines out dramatically. Position that "hole" as a beacon to pull the eye to the important element you want to emphasize.

Technique: The simpler the shape (square, rectangle) the more deliberate it looks and works best. It doesn't matter whether it comes in from the outside margins or is inserted within the fabric of the story. Its job is to contrast strongly with that key point and make it stand out.

It Creates Importance

Enclose the element (whether image or words) in a white frame as though it were a picture hanging on a wall. That gives special value, so the viewer's attention is concentrated on it.

Technique: The overall shape is what must be noticed first. Simple rectangles are ideal. The more complex the geometry, the less clearly does it jump off the page.

It Helps the Reader Navigate

By separating elements from each other, it explains what belongs to what. That reveals the geography of the page at first glance. Keep the spaces within a story narrow, and make the space between the stories wide. Then build the pages by arranging the blocks as separated blocks.

Technique: It isn't the specific dimension of the gaps between things that matters but their comparative sizes. The normal is thin, the special is broad. The effect is created by contrast that doesn't demand excess space: Narrow vs. Just-a-bit-wider is just as effective as Wide vs. Broad.

It Is a Clue to Effort

It shows how long the various bits on the page are. "Am I interested enough in this subject to invest the time and effort it probably requires?" asks the reader, who can immediately decide whether to bother to read or not. That is done with moats that are a bit wider than the normal space between columns. Normal spacing creates an expected scale of space-between. A small change in widths yields that helpful magic if it is clearly recognizable.

Technique: A simple horizontal or vertical moat is the ideal. Moats with wiggles in them are harder to recognize for what they are, so they don't work so well. Keep it simple.

It Makes Stories Grow

Exploiting the fact that the publication is multi-paged, repetition of a small detail can tie individual pages into a Big Story. Recognizable
bits -- even tiny ones -- can accumulate and add up to large effect.

Technique: Whatever the size of the white space and its placement on the page, it must recur exactly the same way on the next and the next and the next. That deliberate precision makes it a noticeable characteristic and magnifies the story. Everything depends on controlled accuracy.

It Adds Flexibility

Think outside the white box. Don't decry the fact that the available space is too small (which it may well be!). Consider whether a little judicious cutting of a few precious words mightn't be a good tradeoff. If the piece is so crammed that it is off-putting, nobody will read it anyway. Consider the cost/benefit ratio. Make yourself a bit of whiteness.

Technique: If you have a given space for the headline, don't regret that you can't fit a larger type size (which is every editor's knee-jerk reaction to increase shouting). It is probably much more successful set smaller and bolder within that same space because the words appear against valuable white background that also separates it from the surrounding text. The white space is a valuable hole in the wallpaper.

It Is Hiding There

Tighten the type. You'll be amazed how looseness wastes space. Squeeze out the excess from between the characters and the lines. Congeal the space thus saved into a blob. Then apply it strategically.

Technique: Set the "tracking" tighter, i.e., "minus-something". Set the "interline space" (leading, ledding) narrower, and make up for the greater difficulty of reading by making the lines shorter (i.e., columns narrower). Tighten the gutter between columns. Now do the same thing with the display type.

Jan V. White, author of Editing by Design, is a publication-making guru. Janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

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"Found this through Twitter. I've always enjoyed your commentary, first at Folio: conferences, later at Cahners meetings." --Jim Carper, Editor, www.jimbocarper.com. 02-19-2010


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