White space in web design: Is there more to it than a mere aesthetic preference?

The Collins Dictionary defines white space as "the portions of a printed page that lack text, illustrations, etc. and are therefore blank". This definition refers to a printed page, however, the concept also applies seamlessly to a webpage.

Marta Guimarães Ferreira
Jan 10 2023 • 4 min reading
White space in web design: Is there more to it than a mere aesthetic preference?

There is no doubt that we are moving towards more minimalist sites, where white space rules. But is this obsession with minimalism, so characteristic of our zeitgeist, merely an aesthetic choice or is there also a hidden functional component?

Where does the motto "less is more" come from? We find in the Contemporary man an underlying arrogance that we are somehow much more evolved than our ancestors, yet our evolution is nothing more than a product of inherited knowledge, accumulated, like geological strata, and passed on from generation to generation. We see the beginnings of this concept, in classical culture. One Greek philosopher who believed in the idea of "less is more" was Socrates, who famously said "the fewer desires, the freer and more independent a man is.". Epicurus, too, argued that the pursuit of excessive wealth could bring more pain and suffering than happiness, and that true happiness lies in a simple and modest life. Forwarding a few centuries to 161 A.D., we come across the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, an avid advocate of a virtuous and rewarding life through living simply and sparingly, devoid of material possessions.

Bridging the gap from the field of philosophy to the sphere of design, the celebrated architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe used the expression "Less is more" to describe his aesthetic vision. This minimalist approach assumes that good design is simple, clear and stripped of everything superfluous, and, as you might expect, web design is no exception. The effectiveness of a web design is measured by the user’s experience. As web designers, we want the user's journey to be as smooth as possible and their expectations to be not only met, but exceeded. It is in this sense that white space can be a true ally: the clarity that it gives to the pages facilitates the user's journey, encouraging him to focus only on what is essential.

Here are three reasons for using white space:

  1. A classic never goes out of style.
    What is truly good, stands the test of time and minimalism is a safe bet. Let's take the example of the German pavilion designed by Mies Van der Rohe for Barcelona’s Universal Fair: although it emanates contemporaneity, it dates back to 1929. The same can be said of the famous Barcelona chair, reproduced incessantly over decades, given the frantic demand. Basically, a web design that allies itself with a simple, sober and clear aesthetic will "stay modern" for much longer.
  2. It helps to visually organize the content.
    According to the proximity principle, "items close together are likely to be perceived as part of the same group". Applying this principle to web design, the user will assume that a set of elements, arranged with considerable proximity to each other are related. On the other hand, elements that are visually separated do not run this risk. White space is useful in that it establishes a visual organization of the content, so that the relationship between the elements is immediately perceivable to the user. The rule is simple: use less white space for elements that belong to the same group, and more white space for elements that belong to different groups.
  3. Possible antidote to Hicks' principle.
    A study conducted by Microsoft in 2015 revealed that the average attention span of a user is 8 seconds, which means that for a website to be effective it must be able to deliver the intended message to the user within this time frame. Otherwise, you risk losing a potential customer. According to Hicks' principle: "The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices." White space helps direct the user's attention in a particular direction, so that they smoothly reach the desired goal, (for example, it can be useful for highlighting calls to actions). In other words, the clearer the user's path, the higher the conversion rate will be.

In any web design project, the user must take center stage. As web designers, our main goal is to create a pleasant user experience. White space is a true web design ally, it not only confers to any design an aesthetically pleasing aura, it is also an extremely useful tool.

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