For content creators—no matter what medium they work in—few things are as unsettling as the sight of a blank page.
All that empty white space just screams to be filled, and it’s the content creator’s job to fill it. Or is it? That’s the funny thing about communication—sometimes what’s left unsaid is just as important as your finest wordsmithing. Just ask any rabid Hemingway fan.
Still, for many marketers, unused real estate on any page is a source of anxiety. But most website designers would argue white space areas ARE being used—and productively at that.
Just as musicians use silence and dynamics to create drama and motion, a skilled designer uses white space for functional purposes that go well beyond simply pleasing the eye. They use it to guide attention, solidify branding, improve comprehension and drive action.
How designers define white space
It may seem obvious, but white space doesn’t actually have to be “white.” It’s simply any area unoccupied by text or art on your site. There are four basic forms of negative space that designers utilize to great advantage:
- Visual white space—the space that surrounds the visual elements of your website, such as images, icons, videos, and other graphics.
- Layout white space—the white space that defines the margins, paddings and gutters of your site pages.
- Text white space—white space integrated into textual elements, such as spacing between lines, letters and paragraphs.
- Content white space—the space that defines the alignment of different content blocks, such as paragraphs, columns, lists, etc.
White space may also be known as negative space, but the effects of incorporating it into your user experience (UX) design are all positive. Working together, the four types of white space can make your website more navigable, readable, scannable, memorable and actionable. Let’s break it down.
5 Ways White Space Enhances User Experience Design
1. It guides readers through the page
To create excellent UX design, you have to think like your user. What do they want from your site? How do they interact with your product or service? What problems can you help them solve?
White space helps designers answer these questions visually. White space minimizes visual clutter, reducing site content to its most essential elements and organizing navigation in a simplistic fashion.
UX designers use white space to guide visitors through the site, make key points of interest easy to find, and highlight opportunities for user actions such as making a purchase or completing a form.
2. It makes your site easier to read
As we outlined above, text white space dictates how various textual elements appear throughout your site. Text white space and content white space collaborate to organize and display your textual content in a way that is easy for users to consume.
Creating adequate spacing between and within large sections of text makes the content easier to read even when there is quite a lot of information packed onto the page. Creating clear visual groupings of content also helps readers mentally organize the information, making it easier to digest and understand.
3. It creates a visual hierarchy
Many internet users no longer read content from start to finish. The rise of mobile web-browsing has created a scanning mentality when it comes to consuming digital content. Users look for headlines and callouts of particular interest to quickly find the information they need without reading everything.
White space improves scannability by reducing the amount of text and organizing it into a clean visual hierarchy. Breaking down the most important pieces of information into quickly digestible headlines or chunks of text helps users understand your main idea and take away what is relevant for them.
4. It improves retention
In addition to making your site easier to read, white space also makes your content easier for users to retain. Research has shown that our short term memory can retain about 7 items before we start to forget.
Using white space to separate text and organize content helps users create a mental map of your content that improves retention and can increase comprehension by up to 20%.
By using white space to group your content into a few relevant chunks, you can prevent information overload and make your content more enjoyable and ultimately more actionable for the user.
5. It simplifies online interactions
Since we can only process so much information at one time, you have to assume that your user has arrived to your site with several of these coveted spots in their working memory already occupied by unanswered emails, mental grocery lists, the Top 40 earworm that’s been stuck in their head since the drive to work, thoughts of an afternoon snack, etc.
The most strategic use of white space in UX design is achieved by infusing design principles with psychological principles. White space guides human attention, memory, and motivation by limiting what a user can focus on at any given moment. White space simplifies the interactions between a user and your site, which in turn simplifies interactions between a user (consumer) and you.
By using white space to reduce on-page distractions and eliminate unnecessary information, you focus your user’s attention on the task at hand (be it a purchase or completing a form)—making them much more likely to complete it.
Wondering if Your User Experience Design is up to Snuff?
Our Website Health Check will run through your vital stats to find areas of opportunity and keep your site in tip top shape.
Editor’s note: this blog post was originally published in September 2016 and has been updated to include additional information.