Space – the designer’s frontier

Posted by Martyn Reding on 18/05/2017 in Design

You hear a lot of comments about space from designers. Not the space with stars, planets and killer aliens, but the space in and around their designs. In fact designers seem to be obsessed with space. It’s a common occurrence to hear designers make complaints such as…

“There isn’t enough space around it”

“The spacing isn’t even”

“That elements needs more space”

Why the obsession with space? After all isn’t space just emptiness? How can it be important to deal with space when we’re dealing with matters such as functionality and content. Well lets look at how much the space around elements can affect people’s perception of them.

When considering composition (of any kind) you can easily see that the gaps between items…

…can change the meaning of the composition.


But what about negative space?

Surely something negative can’t have a positive impact on a design.

But empty space can speak as loudly as filled space. For example take the sadness of helvetica, with the teardrop inside it’s lowercase ‘a’.

Or the arrow inside the FedEx logo that quietly urges them forward.

So you can see that whilst space is indeed the absence of an entity, that absence can have a positive impact.

Space and mood

In the context of digital design the space in/around elements directly correlates with how the brand and content is perceived by users. A layout that makes liberal use of space can denote a brand with confidence. It conveys a sense of calm and focus.

Whereas layouts that limit the space inside give a very different message. Tight layouts and line spacing bring a sense of urgency. This kind of composition would not be appropriate for high-end brands, that want their customers to feel confident in their stability.

This is also true in other forms of composition. In music there exists a range of methods to describe and annotate the space between notes. French composer Claude Debussy is quoted as “Music is the space between the notes”. The space between sounds dictates the rhythm. As with a visual layout, when there is lots of space between beats the rhythm becomes slower and the mood of the music becomes calmer. So like a musical beat an uneven rhythm can become frenetic and build tension – not an ideal sensation to give your customers.

The same principles of space, rhythm and mood are true in film. When directors or reviewers are discussing the space in scenes or the rhythm of a film they use the term “pace” to describe it. Pace can be a vital factor in how a film is experienced. It can make the difference between an action packed scene and a slow, sombre moment. Renowned directors such as Coppola, Kubrick and Hitchcock are cited as masters of pacing their films, often editing shots to control the space between actors’ delivery.

Space & proximity. It’s the law.

Gestalt psychology is set of theories that attempt to clarify how our minds understand our world, by self organising. The Gestalt laws include the Law of Proximity which states that “objects or shapes that are close to one another appear to form groups“, this applies to elements that don’t necessarily look alike. Which in turn means the space between objects will create associations. In terms of UI design this is a critical factor in usability.

In the example below you can see that poor spacing has muddled the meaning of the content. Now the offer has become ambiguous and potentially causes confusion with users.

With an adjustment to the spacing, the proximity of the offer to the product changes, therefore clarifying which one it applies to.


In conclusion those whinging designers may have a point. Well considered spacing can be a vital and powerful tool in creating digital experiences.
(It also can make exciting films).