When is nothing more valuable than something? If less is more, what do you want less of, and in order to get more what?

Luxury direct“Prose is architecture and the Baroque age is over.”
—Ernest Hemingway

The ancient physics term, horror , or “fear of empty space,” gained new meaning when Italian critic Mario Praz mid-century used it to assess cluttered Victorian interior design. He noted that there seems to be a human impulse to fill up all available space. We can barely stand a white wall without a painting or poster on it. A blank page in a sketch book terrifies some, enlivens others—but either way demands that a pencil be picked up and something created to fill the space.

Empty space, or “white space” in design parlance, has a tremendous power. When we are responsible for expressing meaning through that space, a common human urge is to scurry to fill it. But as beholders of that blank space, we experience its powerful gravity.

I once tore a page out of a design magazine and posted it in my small work cubicle. It featured an ordinary disposable coffee cup, the kind found in a million office break rooms and church foyers. It had pastel brushstrokes splashed about in a background pattern. And the caption below it lashed out at just that. Knee-jerk decoration. The need to add meaningless, banal imagery to anything and everything. The design added no value or meaning to the cup. It simply soothed the cup’s designers and manufacturers, alleviating their fear of the vacuum.

St Moritz Church Augsburg
Figure 1 John Pawson’s Conversion of St Moritz Church Augsburg, (photo from Meditation in White )

THE DIRECT CORRELATION

There is, in fact, a direct correlation between white space and perceived value. Busy visuals are characteristic of used-car dealerships, thrift stores, convenience stores, and going-out-of-business sales. These are windows plastered with cluttered, garish, massive signs desperately clamoring for our attention. The end result is a sea of noise that none of us can easily navigate.

On the other hand, uncluttered spaces create a sense of luxury, prestige, elegance, and calm. The high-end department store with one lone mannequin in its massive window display. The exclusive jewelers’ ad with one diamond ring set in a sea of black (which, for the record, also counts as white space). These are disciplined, ordered, certain places. They bring no anxiety, no worry, and no pressure.

Which is ironic. Because anxiety is what the used-car dealer was trying to relieve with his massive neon signs. And the cup manufacturer. And the Victorian interior designers. They were terrified of being accused of wasting space. Of being accused of not having created enough. Or being seen as lazy or unoriginal.

LESS AS MORE

This aligns perfectly with so much other design theory. Hick’s law instructs us that the fewer options a person has, the easier it is to make a choice. When audiences are confronted with busy, over designed websites and marketing materials, they can barely decide where to begin. The signal-to-noise ratio becomes unsustainable.

But any good designer knows that it requires more thought and work to rid a design of distractions and distill it to the essence that most clearly conveys the desired message. This is congruent not only with good design theory; it applies to so much of life. Blaise Pascal, the gifted mathematician, wrote in 1657:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

Or, “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

I’m sorry my letter is so long; I didn’t have time to edit it down. The number of books I have read that would have made better magazine articles is baffling. The number of movies that would have worked better with half the screen time, etc.

A friend of mine recently finished writing a book. In a blog post about writing it, she talks about taking her “awful” book draft and sitting down to edit out all the unsatisfactory parts not once, but twice. After the second time, she noted “To my surprise, again, there was something left after I finished that process, too. Something I felt okay about putting my name to.” The work of creating value, in writing, design, and other arenas, is as much about what is cut out as what is kept in.

DON’T FEAR THE VOID

It can be hard to trust that the anxiety that you experience when looking at a design with lots of negative space will translate into power when the user experiences it. It is precisely because this fear is so hard to overcome that clean, minimalist design is so rare in mainstream culture, and therefore still offers a differentiating brand experience for your viewers.

As a designer, it’s one of the most common requests I have from clients. “Can we add something here?” I’ve never once in 15 years had a client cut too much from a project, or ask me to create more white space. The error is always on the side of too busy, too much.

As web marketers Oneupweb put it, “The immediate reaction for many when trying to add attention to content is to simply make it bigger, but adding whitespace often is more effective.”

Steve Krug, author of the runaway best seller on web usability, Don’t Make Me Think, advises copy writers to “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” As a designer, I frequently wish this on the visual elements as well. Turning the question of what can fit into the question of what can’t we live without.

Keeping websites and print pieces as visually simple as possible will always yield a more powerful impact on your viewers. It cuts down on distractions and highlights only what they need to know.

Costco mattresses
Figure 2 Costco mattress website

 

Tuft and Needle mattresses
Figure 3 Tuft and Needle Mattresses