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Space - A friend and enemy

Liam Curley
Liam Curley
4 min read
Space - A friend and enemy

Clean white space does wonders for brand image. But, in some situations, white space holds you back.

The power of white space

The mere visit to an Apple store broadcasts the aesthetic power of space. Placing a product in clean white space elevates perception of prestige and quality. [1]

Power of context

You also know that context influences your attention. Compare the visuals above. The green against black dots pops more than against grey.

Same number of dots, same size, same position, same colour green. The only change is the surrounding environment, and that transforms your perception.

Circle size

Another example context altering perception. The small circles in the image above are identical. But, change the size of the surrounding circle and the inner circle on the left appears larger than the one on the right.

Overloaded by incoming signals

Incoming signals

At any one time, you're flooded by a cascade of sensory inputs. It's not possible to consciously process each one, but you do absorb those that catch your attention. The extent to which the input catches your attention determines whether a memory is formed and the vividness of that memory.

As a marketer, your job is to earn attention. The challenge is that sensory inputs earn trust and attention in different ways.

Visual inputs are reinforced by white space, and you can divert attention by manipulating the surrounding environment.

The same works for text, but in reverse.

Copy - more space, less impact

When text is surrounded by white space, the message is less persuasive. This is true for copy designed to motivate an action or opinion - marketing copy.

A series of studies prove the impact of space on text. In the first study, researchers analysed a collection of images containing statements posted on Facebook. They recorded the size of each image and the amount of space that surrounded the text. The results showed that text with large white space received fewer comments, likes, and shares.

Pick me study

In a second study with 126 undergrads, participants performed a series of marketing tasks unrelated to the study. At the end of the session, the researcher announced that participants could collect a copy of the paper reporting on the tasks they had performed. They could collect the paper on a table by the exit.

The table held two signs with papers beside each (see visual above). Both signs had an identical message, font, font size, font colour. The only difference was the size of the white space around the message.

60% of participants picked the paper by the sign containing less white space, whilst only 38% of participants picked from the sign with more white space.

Snickers research

Further research, this time testing the impact of white space in an advert. 155 participants were randomly assigned to two conditions. The first condition was a large vs small space surrounding the ad message.

The second condition was a change to the image (limited space vs no image). Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they would want to eat a Snickers, buy a Snickers, and the quality of the ad (e.g. creativity, trustworthiness, etc.).

Results found that, altering/removing the image had little impact on the advert effectiveness. But, as with previous studies, the contrast between large and small space surrounding the message did change effectiveness. On average, participants preferred the ad with less white space around the message.

One caveat

Randomly computer generated

The final study sheds light on the reason behind the impact of space around text.

A similar test was conducted as those above, empty space vs little space around text. The difference here was that the space was clearly generated randomly by a computer.

In this study, no difference was found between sample texts. On average, participants didn't find text more or less persuasive, regardless of the space around the text.

This final study reinforces the conclusions from previous research [2] that we judge the validity of an argument based on the number of points made. More points = more persuasive.

A legitimate hypothesis is that, when text designed to persuade the reader is surrounded by big white space, the reader assumes that the writer didn't have enough data or arguments to support their case.

When the computer randomly generated white space, the reader didn't make the assumption that the writer couldn't fill the space with their argument.

Takeaway

  • Big white space portrays quality when the focal point is a visual.
  • It's good design practice to allow your work to breath. But, when you create a container for copy, on digital or print, fill it.
  • If your copy is drowning in white space, by design, the reader will subconsciously assume that you've 'run out' of selling points.

Sources:

[1] Pracejus, John & Olsen, G. & O'Guinn, Thomas. (2006). How Nothing Became Something: White Space, Rhetoric, History, and Meaning. Journal of Consumer Research. 33. 82-90.

[2] Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity and quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(1), 69–81.

All studies on the impact of white space on text were taken from: Kwan, Canice M. C., Xianchi Dai, and Robert S. Wyer. "Contextual Influences on Message Persuasion: The Effect of Empty Space." Journal of Consumer Research 44.2 (2017): 448-464.