Saturday, September 18, 2010

On White Space in User Interface Design

The common point about white space that I've heard is that it creates a focus: we hone in on the text that is surrounded by the white space.  John Maeda, in The Laws of Simplicity, makes a different point that I've never heard before: white space (space in general) invites us to fill it in, to do something with it.   He uses the analogy of an empty counter top on which we put keys, mail, etc.

Furthermore, Maeda avers there is a tacit challenge with white space.  Imagine a page in a book blank except for the words, "Don't write on this page."  There's a provocation here that, Maeda claims, goes beyond the verbal challenge.

Nothing is a provocative something.  [Getting metaphysical for a moment, these words make me think of Kierkegaard's connection of nothingness, possibility, anxiety, and even freedom.  Nothingness represents an opportunity and freedom.]

If true, what are the implications for UI design?  Should editors present us with the equivalent of a blank page and make it look and feel like a blank page?  If we are concerned with eliciting feedback with a design, should we go out of our way to preserve the provocative white space?  As a user fills in the white space, does the provocation gradually decrease?

There are two kinds of applications: those that primarily present and those that are primarily used to create.  Some applications do both.  Is there a tension between the design goals of maximizing information presentation (and are concerned with maximizing the information value) and maximizing response and feedback?  In the former, we want to maximize data in the space provided whereas in the latter we want to make the user feel the need to feel the chaos and the nothingness and respond.  More white space means less information in the form of "administrative debris" (Tufte) or actual information.

Complex user interfaces--feature-laden word processors, for example--lose the opportunity to tap into the "anxiety of nothingness" (for lack of a better term).

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