In design, “white space” is negative space. It’s not blank space because it has a purpose. It is balancing the rest of the design by throwing what is on the page (or the screen) into relief. The white space helps focus your visual attention.
Now let’s expand this concept of white space beyond the world of graphic design. What if you analyzed your daily schedule with an eye toward design? Have your preserved enough “white space” within your daily workflow? Or does the way that you design your day look extremely busy and cluttered?
We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs because the concept carries over: If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can’t focus properly on anything. What’s more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively.
In their book Scarcity, the researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir make a compelling case for how “time scarcity” — the state of being constantly overscheduled — diminishes our imaginative powers. Here’s a choice excerpt:
Because we are preoccupied by [time] scarcity, because our minds constantly return to it, we have less mind to give to the rest of life. This is more than a metaphor. We can directly measure mental capacity or, as we call it, bandwidth. We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all of these components of bandwidth—it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And the effects are large.
Time scarcity is like kryptonite for creativity. If we want to create an environment that nourishes innovation and imagination, we need to build quiet counterpoints into our daily rhythm. These small moments of “white space”— where we have time to pause and reflect, or go for a walk, or just breathe deeply for a few moments — are what give balance and flow and comprehension to our lives as a larger whole.
We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs.
Think about how you can open up your schedule and let some white space in — the mental equivalent of a light, airy room of one’s own that you allow yourself to retreat to, and refuel, a few times a day.
It should be noted that a “room of one’s own” means that, literally. You are not in a room of your own if you are looking at your phone, or waiting for it to alert you to some development. Skimming your social media feeds while trying to relax is like trying to meditate at a parade. It doesn’t work. So let’s consider it a pre-requisite to white space that you must put down your phone and/or step away from your computer.
But what exactly is white space? Well, that’s up to you. The general idea is to zone out, and reconnect to the blank canvas of your mind.
A few ideas to get you started:
- Sitting quietly and letting your mind wander
- Free drawing with no specific objective
- Going for a walk around the block
- Doing a mini-workout
- Taking a power nap
- Automatic writing
- People watching
We like to apply design to almost everything these days. We talk about designing our careers, designing our relationships, and even designing happiness. But in many key ways, we are failing to examine our lives as a designer would.
Ask yourself: Do you have enough white space in your daily routine? Or do you plow through an over-cluttered schedule day after day, unconscious of how much this time scarcity is cramping your creativity?
Consider building a few white space blocks directly into your schedule weeks in advance so that no matter what meetings or deadlines come up, you still have time blocked off to take a few moments and think about the big picture — or think about nothing at all.
Because if you’re all get up and go, you’re eventually going to go off the rails.
All artwork by Raul Sora.