White Space, the uncomfortable silence of design

“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bulls–t in order to be comfortable?”
-Mia Wallace (Uma Thruman), Pulp Fiction

Frustrated after once again hearing “there’s too much white space,” I began to ponder why people “fear” white space. Of course it’s really not fear that prompts that dreaded phrase, it’s discomfort. Those who are uncomfortable with white space most likely also find discomfort in the lulls of conversation.

Anxiety can rear up during these “uncomfortable silences,” and the mind races trying to come up with something, anything to say to fill the void. With thoughts running rampant, its hard for your mind to focus; and you are not truly listening and understanding the subject under discussion. Perhaps it is this inability to focus that is the true source of discomfort.

Theses pauses in conversation function as a “breathing space” for your brain. When conversation lapses it’s because our minds are taking a moment to reflect on and process the content of the conversation. The quiet aids in comprehension. So stop trying to fill a silence that doesn’t need to be filled. The silence has a purpose, embrace it.

For some, white space in a design causes this same reaction. They see all that wide open space and want to fill it up. But like a pause in conversation, that space has a purpose. It allows the mind to rest, reflect, and process the information it is taking in. Fill that space with too much visual stimuli—be it text or images—and the mind doesn’t know what to focus on or what to process first.

If all elements of a design are shouting at you at once, none of them get heard. It is this visual noise that hinders comprehension of the intended message. And like the conversational lull, white space functions as “breathing space” for your brain. So trust your designer when they quote Mies Van Der Rohe and tell you “Less is More,” and embrace the space.

“That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the f–k up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
-Mia Wallace (Uma Thruman), Pulp Fiction