White space in web design is not the absence of an element. It is its own element and has its own properties and functions. It is also a fundamental and necessary consideration that is often overlooked by web designers and developers when creating sites for their client’s customers.
It is well-known that web users scan web pages. They don’t read. This means that, as a designer, the amount of screen real estate you allocate to content must be concise, purposeful, and obvious. You have to say what you want to say quickly, efficiently and in a manner that anticipates a visitor’s questions well ahead of time.
At first glance, this sounds like a navigation issue. Ensure you have necessary information appropriately arranged and easy to discover, right? Right. However, it is white space that drives this initial discovery and allows visitors to find the information they want easily. It does this in at least three distinct ways:
White space improves readability by adding space around blocks of text, between words and even within words. The font type and size you select matters not only stylistically, but also in terms of readability; and some font families are naturally more readable than others. The goal of using white space for readability is to increase comprehension and subconscious appeal by making the job of reading seem easier to the reader.
White space provides a feeling of fresh air, comfort, and relaxation. When a site is constructed with only essential elements, visitors are allowed more pause to reflect on the message of the site and more time for deeper comprehension. Sites that have too much information on a single page or crammed together too closely create feelings of suffocation, information overload, and distrust. This distrust can carry into the psychology of the visitor who is seeking your business goods or services. Visitors may imply that if you’re not organized on your site that you are not organized enough for a business relationship.
An example of overload is http://www.qrme.co.uk/. When you first land on this site, you see ten pages in the top nav, one of which has twenty child pages. There are also ads, randomly placed images, a login feature, a visitor counter widget, a slider linking to an online store, and more. Although the background is a very light shade of gray, and although there is, technically, lots of white space on the site, there is very little space between the elements. Fonts have been reduced to fit more content on the page and graphics with varying widths dominate the middle of the page.
Attention & Focus
With fewer elements on a page, there are fewer opportunities for distraction; fewer competing messages; and fewer options for action. With a skillful use of white space, your visitors can concentrate on one thing at a time and take their time absorbing the carefully selected information you decided to include on your page. The challenge with fewer elements is that every decision you make becomes a strategic one. Allocating screen real estate for white space forces you to economize the remainder of your available space. It forces you to be thorough, quick and effective with your message. It forces solid copywriting.
We’re Only Human After All
A sponge can only hold a limited amount of liquid before it starts to leak. Likewise, there is a limit to the amount of information a human brain can process in a given time period before it reaches a saturation point; before it simply can’t learn anything new. If you’ve ever gotten burned out at a conference or reached that point when you’re “done”, then you know the feeling. An effective use of white space understands the limit of this capacity and reduces your visitor’s cognitive load by dividing page elements into easily digestible chunks.
In other words, it’s easier to remember stuff if there is less stuff to remember. “But what about…? We’ve got to have that somewhere!” Do you? Do you really? If you ride that necessity out to its inevitable conclusion, you’ll see that a site is never complete. There is always something more that could be said; and that’s okay. That’s what contact forms are for. Just be sure to answer those emails in a timely fashion.
In Conclusion …
White space, when used thoughtfully and with patient deliberation, creates a sense of natural balance and a sense of emotion. Visitors who are engaged on more than only pragmatic levels use a site more often; stay around a little longer; read more than scan; remember your message and have a better chance of clicking your action button.