Negative space and the possibility for pause. Issue #98.
What is "white space" anyway? And what the heck do we need it for? Plus Rhododendron!
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As most of you probably now, I design websites (with the help of my phenomenal colleagues) for a living. This has been my primary practice, shockingly, for over twenty years.
Recently, a number of our clients have been asking us to reduce the amount of “white space” — in essence, those areas that are between and among compartments of content — on their respective websites. Their requests are based on the belief that written and visual content (mostly text and images) should be seen and held closer together, that space between elements should be generally minimized, and that, in effect, website visitors (readers) will get to information more quickly without all that extraneous expanse of nothingness. I believe they would argue that seeing empty space is akin to, well, seeing empty space.
As a reader of Gornisht, you can probably see where I’m going with this.
Somehow along the way, we have learned to not like these empty spaces. Even small bits of it can drive us crazy. White space, whether on a home page or at our home, is very often deemed not necessary or, at the very least, not notable. Space is there for the filling. Nature abhors a vacuum. An empty desk means an empty mind. Leave no stone unturned.
The idea of “nothing” is scary — and the reality of nothingness is even scarier.
I get it. We live on a busy planet, full of physical and digital objects, everywhere. The economy is fuelled by growth. We have a housing shortage. We need more spaces. Stores must sell products. Some stuff is good and more stuff is better. Why should a website have so much “white space”, especially in places like a footer, which is just, after all, a stupid footer?
Okay, let’s talk a little about white space itself. What is that again? While the common parlance here is often “white space”, what we are really talking about is “negative space”, the space around and between, the areas through which a designed and flat visual object (a website, a book, a magazine, a newspaper or maybe a brochure) are meant to be unobservable. Negative space can be defined as the regions within a given visual domain that are not shot through with intended material (like writing or photography).
Over a hundred years ago, Danish Psychologist Edgar Rubin showed that visual perception was dependent upon how the eye, and the mind, understands a given space. The “Rubin Vase” (or “Two Face/One Vase Illusion”) shown below, contains two images (sometimes referred to as bi-stable in perception). The images, of faces or a vase, are co-equal and here the negative space is pregnant with both possibilities of meaning for the subject.
Farther east, the Japanese concept of negative space is often referred to as “ma”. Areas of emptiness present positive meaning and apprehension in the mind. Ma is the interval or intervals, visual or sonic, that make up the silences that cause us to pause. Ma is what we see when we are not looking. Ma is possibility preserved. Ma is the design of preserving quiet.
You probably know John Cage, a student of Zen Buddhism, who wrote a piece called 4’33” (1953), consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence — performed with intention by musicians on a stage. Of course, there is no such thing as silence in a concert hall (or more generally, really). What an audience member actually hears during a performance of 4’33” is the sound of their own breath and of collective breathing, the coughs and coos of neighbors, and the awkward conformity of quietly squirming for four and a half minutes in one’s seat.
Cage, in fact, was clear about his own direct visual inspiration for 4’33” — a series of paintings called, well, white paintings by Robert Rauschenberg. Below is “White Painting” (1951) — a canvas in three panels, painted with plain old house paint. Apparently, Rauschenberg made these paintings so that they could be remade, again and again, without his being involved in their making. These paintings are an epitomized negative space — like 4’33”, they can be put on repeat, easily. Rauschenberg even referred to this paintings as “clocks”, which makes sense to me. There is a timelessness to the pause that they engender.
White space is confusing, confounding, concerning — and also contradictory. But without it, we would not have what we have, either.
Next, let’s talk a little about rest, which emanates from white space. As a rule, in Western culture, we really don’t like rest. I had a bad cold over the past two weeks and, honestly, it was incredibly difficult for me to sit still. (My daughter, who tested positive the day after I saw her, admonished me that that what I had was the same COVID variant. Still, I’m going with the science.)
Resting, relaxing, chilling, chillaxing, whatever your flavour, it’s a sometimes impossible task for me. And I recognize it’s partly because I see it as a “task” — resting as something that needs to be done, in order for me to get better and, well, become once again productive or helpful. Rest is this strange companion for me and for most of us. We don’t want it until we know we need it. We don’t know how much we need it, until we have it.
When we learn to rest these days — either by turning off the digital maelstrom on weekends or deciding that we have done enough for the time being — it is glorious. Ask anyone just back from vacation and how ready they may feel for a 9:00 meeting on Monday morning.
Visual rest, the kind that designers build into experiences on the web, is akin to personal rest. Let’s go back to those websites. On any given website or tool, negative spaces are those areas designed, consciously, to give the viewer pause. They are made to help the reader slow down, to take into consideration what they have read or seen, to give pause to what is presented.
Alphabet, the fifth largest company in the world, and which also happens to own Google, has a lot to say about white space.
It is the same in movies, where you will often see transitions — a quiet sunset or a black screen — to demarcate that that part of the story has ended and another part is beginning. On radio and podcasts, you hear a little bit of musical transition between stories. In books, there are chapters and typically between those chapters is a page or two of, yep, blankness.
On websites, too, giving readers moments of minus is also important — we want people to pause, to pull up, to take a breath and to be.
So what are we to do? Or more readily, what did we do when clients asked us to reduce the white space that literally holds their website together? We complied. While I contend that design is a kind of art, it is invariably a ridiculously commercial one. Justin Bieber purchased an Audi R8, a car of great speed and sophistication, and painted it with leopard spots to match his favourite wardrobe of the month. While I don’t think that we would have gone so far as to reskin a client’s site in this way, the truth is that reducing negative space is neither a transgression nor a crime.
We need pause. Our eyes are sore. Our minds are full. Our bodies, at least the ones I know, are tired. We need possibility, or at the very least, the possibility of possibility. We need play and we need the promise of peace.
As much as we might think of design as an instrument of production, a tool for triangulating conversations among content, client, and customer, I also believe that design has the capacity to give us pause and possibility and play. Maybe even peace.
Reading: I’m halfway through Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The book comes at an interesting time for me in my self-help reading history. Burkeman neatly summarizes so many of the authors and ideas that I’ve taken to heart over the past five years when I started taking meditation (and stress reduction) more seriously. He discusses the attention economy, the challenges of distraction, and the fantasy of being able to accomplish everything (or many things) in one’s lifetime. He encourages us to embrace our finitude, to adapt a slightly more stoic stance, and, above all, to reduce our ridiculous expectations. He neatly makes the case for us to examine what is most important in our lives and then to live within those limitations, whatever they may be.
Listening: Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Life on Earth came out at the start of 2022 and it is mesmerizing — what I might call plaintive punk for folkies. Alynda Segarra’s voice has matured over the years and their music remains consistently open, honest and often searing. (Check out the compelling and clever single Rhododendron.) In an open letter to folk musicians, Segarra wrote in 2015:
What does folk music mean to you?
To me, it has always meant music that lifts the human spirit out of the terror and anguish of oppression. It is the sound of the strength of humanity.
Today, as it seems everywhere we look there are people of color, black and brown people who are voicing frustration, demanding justice and the right to live, I wonder: where are the musicians to sing the tune of this time?
Wishing you a healthy and hearty week ahead. Rhododendron!