White space is nothing. White space is the absence of content. White space does not hold content in the way that a photograph ...

by Keith Robertson
Date: 1993
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White space is nothing. White space is the absence of content. White space does not hold content in the way that a photograph or text holds meaning and yet it gives meaning and yet it gives meaning, through context, to both image and text. In fact, white space can make or break the effective transmission of image and text.

This would be an effective experiment:

- find a simply presented fashion shot, preferably in black and white and compare its presentation:

1) as a full-page bleed;
fashion SHOT
2) with a white border; and
fashion SHOT
3) much smaller with asymmetric balance.
fashion SHOT
The third wins every time!
The former two fit within the code but the third uses the creative/unpredictable edge build into the code.
The asymmetry symbolizes daring and innovation.

In material terms, what is white space in graphic design?

White space is extravagance. White space is the surface of the paper on which you are printing showing through and on which you are choosing NOT to print. If economy and conservation were your chief concern, then white space would be at minimum; obviously you would use it all up. So white space is used for purely semiotic values; for values of presentation which transcend economic values by insisting that the image of what you present is more important than the paper you could be saving. It is likely that this aesthetic is more extravagant with paper than any other graphic design value - especially in Japan. Printing plates, separations, paper and four or more colour presses still have to be used and paid for with the inclusion of white space. White space is a negative cost right down the production line - except for giving style.

It is easy to name those sorts of publications where white space is not the first priority. In most paperback books for instance, where presentation of text in the most functional, economical, and readable way is the first priority, white space has minor importance. Historically newspapers have not been big on white space, although this is changing as newspapers are slowly shifting their function and provide colour and entertainment as well as hard core information. In these Post-modern times there has been an increasing competition for the eye in all media, so sales are promoted not through content, but through quick visual summaries made using the visual code in which white space plays a dominant part.

There is another important category of publication where white space is least dominant. This is the area of working class/mass market publications, where the main distinguishing variable is the category of class. This category of publications are common in most Western cultures. They share international commercial aesthetic of clutter and business in every design element. Here we have a commercially motivated use of the polar opposite end of the quality/bourgeois aesthetic. Here is white space working as hard as ever to brand for class, but in this case is working in the negative. Clutter has come to represent working class (just as white space identifies high class). Clutter clearly identifies a market in those who are immediately suspicious of white space and have no hesitation about what it means - that this publication is not for them/not of their class. So the quality aesthetic has been hijacked by bourgeois ideology, leaving the working class only trashy and inferior symbols to identify with. White space is the key and the tool.

Compare the mass market women's weekly magazines to Vogue (not to mention Arena, Eye, or Émigré) In the quality class of publication, white space is so dominant that even the advertising is simplified, highly visual, and heavily coded. Quality publications in the 1990's , come as such heavily coded entities that no element can afford to be out of step. Compare these publications now to the relative anarchy of the early eighties and you can see the white space has once again gripped the design world in a new conformity. Originally Published in Émigré no.26, 1993



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