The Power of Blank Space

White space. If it’s not in your life you will feel crowded, hemmed in. What is white space? If you’ve ever planned design work, you consider both the space where there are words and images (message space) and the space that is empty–called “white space.”

White space is important. Too much copy and illustration, and the busy page exhausts you. You can’t read any of it. Too little white space and you feel lost and disconnected, not sure you understand what you are looking at.

If you know this already, you might explore “passive white space”–margins and spaces between paragraphs, and “active” white space, the space purposely designed to give your eyes and mind a rest.

whitespaceexample_no2-1If you are interested in how to use white space in design, read Larisa Thomason’s excellent article “The Use of White Space.” The image on the left is from that article.

So yesterday, when I was having a  terrible, no-good, horrible, really bad day (Judith Viorst knows about those days). I felt jammed up by 6 a.m., when I had a competitive assignment to hand in before I left for a teaching assignment.

I made some choices that changed the day. Here’s how I did it:

1. I stopped doing my work. Put the phone down, signed out of email. I needed to distance myself and my frustration.

2. I took a break. I got a glass of ice coffee, looked out the window  and did some deep breathing

3. I re-set priorities. This is the hard part. I had to call clients, work on projects, solve some problems. But I knew if I forced myself ahead with the considerable self-discipline I am capable of, I would do more damage than good. I’d make mistakes because I was frustrated; I’d miss correcting those mistakes because I was rushed. I’d create more mistakes and less forward motion.

4. I added white space to my day. I cut out some items I thought I had to do. I added a few administrative tasks that were more noodly, didn’t require a lot of brain power, but needed to be done. I added a half-hour of reading a magazine between tasks. Another spot of white space. I ran some errands. At the end of the day, I had accomplished some necessary items, hadn’t ruined client relationships and felt less harassed and frustrated.  I need to be clear here: I chose not to do some important things because the risk of doing them and failing was more probable than being able to push through them successfully. Yes, I put off the thing that has to be done, in order to save it. It is a hard decision to make, and exactly why adding white space is a life saver.

I now have a name for deliberately putting off work because I am emotionally incapable of doing it. This is very different from avoiding work, creating excuses, or not meeting a deadline because you didn’t get up early enough. You know the difference. My day was saved and ended well because I added emotional white space.

—Quinn McDonald  occasionally has to fight to nurture her ability to get work done.

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18 thoughts on “The Power of Blank Space

  1. I work with kids and their teachers and parents who feel like Alexander most days. Forturnately I go to them which gives me some down-time in between. I have to concentrate on my driving so it allows me some white space, a space in which to change my focus . . . I guess it’s my active white space.

  2. Excellent! Emotional White Space. Exactly what I needed to read, as I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed these days and this aptly-named concept is going to be applied, starting today. So much more effective to think of it in this term rather than just saying, “I need a break.” Then, “Who has time for a break?” Thanks, Quinn!

    • great comment. I really liked what you wrote. It hit home really hard and I am bored for the first time in my life and feel like I have to fill up all the space, but even now, I know I have to allow for the some white space to figure out what I really want, not what I feel I should have.

  3. What a wonderful concept!
    In my design life, I understand the importance of white space very well – ALWAYS insist on it infact.
    In my life-life, not so much.
    Great thought to hold, and I will. Thank you.

  4. I loooooved this article. enough said. I love the idea of reading a magazine between tasks and putting ones off until you could really do it the the way you wanted to.

    Kath

  5. Hey if you can invent emotional white space I’m calling dibs on either intellectual sautéing or rational pickling — as soon as I can think of something one of ’em might mean!

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