Why Less Can Be More
They say nature abhors a vaccum… apparently so do graphic design clients. For many, the impulse to fill up every available space with type or artwork can clutter or completely derail a project. A staple of good design, the wise use of white space can lend an air of sophistication to a layout, and should always be a consideration in any style of design. But when a specific minimalist look is desired, editing and balance are crucial in order to maintain the open real estate needed to create an effective version of this classic look. Its usually helpful to agree upon that basic style at the onset – otherwise the need to “fill in” generally takes over.
Many years ago in my first contact with graphic design, I was on the “annual staff” at my high school, creating the page layouts for the yearbook. Now this was the late 70s and well before computers or software. Page elements were sketched out on actual size graph paper in blue pencil. Measurements for the printer were done in picas. Photos and text were given corresponding numbers for placement, and the photos were “cropped” by marking the actual desired size on the developed photo with a grease pencil. Wow – seems primitive now. Anyway, my point is one of the ideas we were presented with as students was a page layout they called “isolated element” – one side of the layout might have a collage of pictures or text with the other side having one single photo. Clearly, the isolated photo was the focus of attention. We were told to use this design idea sparingly, if at all. Minimalism –they thought it was a little bit radical I guess.
What I did not understand at the time was that the space in between the photos was an element as well. An essential point in this creative process is seeing that the “empty” space is really not empty at all. It exists in contrast to the other elements on the page as well as being defined by them – it has “weight” and structure. Similarly, it does not even have to be white. Minimalist design can use black or any color as its base. The open areas exist visually in the design as powerfully as any other element.
Generally employed when a more upscale or luxury approach is desired, minimalist design relies on structure, great typography and an understanding of balance. Some white space is considered passive – such as the space between the lines of type or the border area of a page. By contrast, active white space would be the territory left open on purpose between design elements. Both passive and active white space are planned and controlled in a well-designed piece of work. Though not a solution for every project, minimalist design with an effective use of white space is a powerful technique.
One good habit you will develop as you explore a minimalist approach is the necessity to prioritize and condense. The design itself requires you to decide what information is essential, and what is fluff – a good practice on any project. It reminds me of an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous” where Edina is running around her apartment knocking things off of counters saying “Surfaces! I must have surfaces!” Or even better, when she flashes back to her college days where her minimalist friends had an apartment totally white with nothing in it but a tiny picture hanging by a thread.
A successful minimalist design is:
Confident. Clean. Structured. Stable. Elegant. Fresh. Pure. Cogent.
Minimalism can also convey attributes that are less desirable. Without a proper focus and balance, minimalism can be:
Mysterious. Cold. Obscure. Vacant. Deserted. Uninviting. Unhelpful.
The first step toward effective use of white space in design is to see that open space as an element itself. Great articles are easy to find online about the use and theory behind white space in design, as well as inspiring galleries to convince you of the beauty and functionality of this style of design.