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Somethingness

I teach an online design class from time-to-time, and one of the things I try to instill in my students is that whitespace is their friend.

Whitespace looks luxurious. Look at a pennysaver-style ad sheet or tabloid and you’ll see that every available inch has been filled with words and images. With stuff.

Look at a high-end fashion magazine or design publication, however, and you’ll notice that many of the pages are barely utilized. There are far fewer images, far less text, and a whole hell of a lot of empty space.

I should note that ‘whitespace’ needn’t be white; it’s a term that means there’s nothing there. An absence of design elements which, in turn, itself becomes a design element. Because although there’s technically nothing there, no images or text, that emptiness helps draw your eye to what’s most important on the page. The whitespace is an amplifier that says, “Hey, you, look at this thing over here. This thing that’s a thing.”

Whitespace is a statement, not about nothingness, but about somethingness. It’s an indication that the elements presented are of vital enough importance that the entire page is focused on making certain you see them. That you focus on these things and are not distracted by anything else.

There are parallels between the concept of whitespace and the surge in minimalistic philosophies and practices.

On a magazine rack filled with noise, it’s the stark, bold, focused imagery and text that stands out. In a world filled with clutter and distractions and opportunities galore, it’s the life of focus, clarity, and intentionality that stands out.

The resurgence of people building tiny homes, living out of carry-ons, and buying less of better is a testament to the fact that we’ve begun to view lifestyle whitespace for the luxury it is, rather than as some kind of sacrifice. That we no longer see not filling every square inch of the page as an indication of not having enough to say.

Update: April 18, 2017

This metaphor seems to hit people hard, as we’ve all seen this aspect of design, the application of white space, but unless we’ve had some kind of design education, it’s unlikely to stand out as what it is.

Putting it into that bigger context, though, usually helps people see why intentionality and minimalism are luxuries in many ways. Which is not to say they’re only for people who are wealthy or otherwise privileged, but rather that they are something nice we do for ourselves; we clear away the clutter and fixate on the vital.