16 things about white space

1. White space is the name typesetters, typographers and type designers – artists of the black – give to a presence where we might expect an absence. We can, if we choose, see a shape where the mark has not been made. Some printmakers can be finely attuned to these ambiguities because they work in negative, i.e. in wood engraving, linocut or wood block printing their work cuts away the areas that don’t print.

2. Artists and art critics sometimes refer to it as negative space, or figure–ground reversal. Some artists help us see that we don’t usually notice we impose sense on what we see:

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares (1961). Not an illusion, but perhaps a play on and reference to printing by offset lithography? Image from Wikimedia Commons

3. In written language white space is the most important, subtle and invisible kind of punctuation or punctus: a point, a division of multiplicity, a something out from everything. Just in case you’re not convinced, here’s the same sentence again without it: Whitespaceisthemostimportant,subtleandinvisiblekindofpunctuationorpunctus:apoint,
adivisionofmultiplicity,asomethingoutofeverything.

Claude Shannon (1916–2001)

4. Claude Shannon (if you don’t know about him, please look him up) invented information theory in the 1940s. I (maybe nearly all of us?) don’t usually think of defining meaning in terms of mathematical formulae, but Shannon (as part of his work in decrypting enemy messages during the Second World War) defined communication as negative entropy: noise is what we might expect from our usual experience of being-in-the-world; the improbability of signal is in fact its guarantee of meaning. Note the metaphor of ‘white’ for undifferentiated, unpitched noise, as if meaning and sense are black. I leave it to you to philosophize about communication as the activity that runs counter to the supposedly incontrovertible (according to Arthur Eddington) second law of thermodynamics.

5. In letterpress printing, a space was a piece of typefounder’s metal, containing lead. Leading (pronounced ledding) still survives in the digital age as the typesetting term for space in between lines of type. Some space between lines helps the eye pick out the start of the new line below. Too little looks mean, too much looks lazy or empty.

6. End-of-line space is a micropause that helps us take in the meaning. We see lines on the web that are too long and give us indigestion. Lines that are too short are not enough of a mouthful. A typical book has 10,000 lines in it, so these things make a difference.

7. Typesetters work hard to use space to make subtle and expressive connections between units of meaning. In other words, things make sense on their own, but connections between things mean something else. In very fine typography we might used a thin space each side of a colon in a ratio: 20:80 rule. There might be a hair space between pairs of quotation marks (‘“”’). There should be a non-breaking space between T., S. and Eliot because it is meaningless to split any of these characters on different lines, ditto Henry and VIII. We might put a non-breaking fixed word space between the points of an ellipsis (. . .) because the ellipsis character is too mean-looking (…) and it looks silly to see a point on one line and two on the next. We might add a zero-width discretionary space to a long URL so it does not hyphenate at the end of a line.

8. All these features are in HTML. Does anybody use them? If not, why not? Is there a generalizable point why they don’t? My points in this blog generally are not about technology itself but the human use of it. I am hoping that in the future innate human pride in our work will make these features – by repetition and the accumulation of tradition – better used.

9. White spaces in books run (in ascending order): hair, thin, word, en (‘nut’), em (‘mutton’), paragraph, chapter, part, end-of-book. An en space is the width of capital N, an em ditto M. In mediaeval texts it was more common to run one paragraph after another, separated by a pilcrow ¶. The ‘carriage return’ (how old-fashioned a mechanical metaphor is that?) character in Word uses the pilcrow symbol but mistakenly puts it at the paragraph end: the pilcrow was originally the ¢ abbreviated from capitulum, chapter, and came at the beginning.

10. The paragraph indent space was formerly the space left for a decorative capital to be printed in a second colour. It saves a lot of space compared with typists’ ‘double paragraph returns’, which always seem to me like wedges between blocks of meaning. Most paragraphs in a story or discussion should be more closely related.

11. In a book on paper (a codex) the page space following a part (section) blank page is always a verso (left-hand page). The recto is the page considered the most emphatic, so the title page and part headings are always rectos (right-hand pages). The prelims (front matter) in a well laid-out book will balance the need to save space with the pleasures of the elegant expression, recto or verso, of the relative interest or importance of the content.

12. Traditional ‘justified’ book setting uses variable word spaces to give a straight right-hand edge to the text block. The skill is to balance the fewest number of end-of-line hyphens against the least variation in word spaces. Paragraphs that are too gappy create ugly ‘rivers’ of vertical white space which are distracting: we read them and not the words. I have already moaned in a previous post about current grisly word spacing in the Kindle, which I am nudging Amazon (via the secret pathways of social media) to fix.

13. This is the logo of a large courier/delivery company. It is doing a great job, adding value and generating good publicity. You have probably seen this hundreds of times and perhaps not noticed until now the strong white arrow between the E and the x:

If you have not seen this before, I apologize for changing the way you will see these vans in the future. The illusions/realities of white space have a curiously invasive effect on our minds.

14. Non-Western cultures are perhaps more ready to prize the being of nothingness. For example the Japanese word ma ‘suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision. Ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the person who experiences these elements’ (Wikipedia).

We may also wish to see reflections of the idea of white space in the Taoist conception of ying and yang as a language for seeing and thinking about something that, at first sight, is not there. The current Creation myths (‘the Big Bang’) within the Western scientific and secular tradition propose an originary balance of matter and anti-matter. But where did all the anti-matter go?

15. According to Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (c. fifth century BC), eleventh chapter,

Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
but the empty space between them
is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
but the empty space between it
is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
but the empty space within it
is the essence of the house.

16. I wonder if Rachel Whiteread’s superb House (below) was a response to the last three lines. Concrete is an unusually broad and physical interpretation of the idea of white space, but why not? Yet, following the municipal decision to demolish it (proving that concrete is also a state of mind) House now exists only in memories and the ethereal kinds of media traces you are reading in this blog, now. This makes Whitehead’s more powerful and resonant, don’t you think?

Rachel Whiteread, House (1993), Grove Road, London E3. The artist had concrete poured into a Victorian house that was being demolished. Image from http://www.image-identity.eu/artists_images_folder/england/rachel-whiteread

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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8 Responses to 16 things about white space

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  6. The Quaker in me has always likened white space on the page to silence. And I once tried to classify different kinds of silence: the list bears some resemblance to yours. Jane Cooper is a poet who uses both white space and silence very effectively (one of her best poems, ‘Silences’, needs plenty of white space).

    When I heard Philip Gross reading his poems in Oxford last year, I closed my eyes and imagined how I they should be set on the page. I imagined them in a sea of white space. Later, he told me he was a Quaker. Surely some connection?

    On a different tack, here is my own candidate for the Use of White Space prize: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_d._%C3%84._106b.jpg

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