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We have all been there: you show a client your design and they say "look at all that unused space, we can go ahead and make the text bigger, in fact let me give you more copy. We need to make use of that space!"

I always try to explain to them the value of white space and how it can potentially impact the perceived value of the product/service. I have seen this question and agree with its answers. Its answers are geared towards getting designers to understand the reasons but my question is:

What is the best "silver bullet" way to convince a client that white space has incredible value? Is there a great example or argument that will silence them and make them feel satisfied?

Update: This question pertains mainly to print or web design, not software/interface/interactive design.

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An entirely "black" page carries no message. When does it become "black" to viewers. –  Mark Schultheiss Jul 28 '11 at 14:47
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@Matt: I believe that Mark is suggesting that you demonstrate your point by taking it to an extreme: if a page is entirely black, then no information is gleaned. He is saying that there is a point where "too cluttered" is effectively the same as "totally black" as far as the viewers are concerned. Scaling back the noise from that extreme, you'll eventually reach the point where you can expect the maximum amount of information to be passed to and retained by the viewer. –  Corey Jul 28 '11 at 15:08
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This always comes to mind: dilbert.com/strips/comic/2008-08-22 –  Steve S Jul 28 '11 at 19:37
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Show them the video, Microsoft redesigns the iPod packaging. Apparently, some consultants used this video to actually convince Microsoft to change their approach to design. They're still not great at it, but they have improved, and if can work there, surely it can work anywhere.... –  user568458 Oct 7 '12 at 10:41
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The "silver bullet" for this question is "SUCK MY BALLS, I'M THE DESIGNER HERE!"... you may not get repeat work though. –  SaturnsEye May 20 at 13:11

7 Answers 7

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Well… your bullet doesn't have to be silver as long as you hit a vital spot.

Sadly, there isn't one. There's an awful lot of people who are unable to visualize design (thankfully, otherwise we'd all be wearing foam hot-dog suits for a living), which is why they come to us. A few points you should try to make:

1) "I'm the expert, and you would be wasting your money if you didn't give my (professional, experienced) judgement the weight it deserves". These folks wouldn't even blink if a plumber told them that the pulse modulator in the secondary warp coil in their bathroom toilet had broken loose and would have to be re-aligned (no - really. I worked as a plumber in college). So why are they arguing with you? Obviously, "You're a stupid doo-doo head who should let me do the job you're paying me to do" isn't the most diplomatic phrasing. But point out that they are paying good money for a product (and it's not necessarily the document / web site they end up with - it's the design judgement and aesthetic sense you bring to the table).

2) Give them a mockup that purposely shows why that white space is important. Tell them: "Most people won't read past the second sentence - your message is too important to get lost in a sea of text" (yes, I know - sometimes shameless ego massage is needed. You can always scrub yourself clean later). Ask them to spend 15 seconds reading the page and to mark where they stopped. Show them how the important parts get lost in a sea of text and remind them that most of the world's attitude toward the written word seems to be "TL;DR". I sent my boss the study that showed the eye tracking pattern for web sites to convince him that "less is better".

3) In the end, you may have to give up. After all, they're paying for it. But if it's a design that completely horrifies you there are a couple of things you should do. First and foremost, keep a copy of any and all dialog (including phone calls, even if it's only a quick series of notes with a time a date stamp). That way, when everyone keeps telling your client that their web site is hard to read you'll have something to use as a backstop. Also, make it clear that you will not be placing your name or reputation anywhere on this web site (even if you don't regularly do it). Again, some diplomatic language is probably best, but if you don't believe in the design you shouldn't have to take the credit (or blame) for it.

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+1 Thanks, some great points here! –  Matt Rockwell Jul 28 '11 at 13:05
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Point 2 is outstanding. Trying to tell the person who's signing your check "I know more than you do" rarely works. But showing the client "Look, if you aren't going to read all this, why would anyone else?" is just brilliant. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 28 '11 at 13:53
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point 2 is great indeed. Tell the client "If you want to emphasize everything, then nothing is emphasized." then show him this video –  Jin Jul 28 '11 at 14:54
    
@Jin - I've always loved that video. And it always saddens me when I meet someone who doesn't get the joke. –  lawndartcatcher Jul 28 '11 at 16:12
    
+1 for the plumber fact –  SaturnsEye May 20 at 13:12

A good analogy I heard regarding this problem that you can use on the client is this: take a look at how a Wal-Mart is laid out versus how a high end retailer like Nordstrom's or Von Maur is laid out. The Wal-Mart is cluttered and stacked wall to wall with as much stuff as they can fit in there while the high end stores have their product displayed with great intent, spacing, and elegance. Psychologically speaking, clutter induces a vague discomfort and "low-brow" feeling amongst viewers while spacing, proper alignment, and proximity present elegance and high class. Ask the client if they'd like their site to be a Wal-Mart or a Nordstrom's. :-)

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+1 Yeah I saw an article that compared two similar stores. Great point. –  Matt Rockwell Jul 28 '11 at 15:17
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Except that there are an awful lot of people who prefer Wal-Mart. It's a great place to get a 5-lb bag of synthetic bacon bits. It's just not an aesthetic I'd want representing me. Unless I open up a "Mel's Mystery Meat" franchise. –  lawndartcatcher Jul 28 '11 at 16:13
    
Playing devil's advocate: if the client wanted to imply with the design the values cheap, economic, low brow, every-day etc, then perhaps clutter would be a good design choice. I have seen (retail) designs that are so clean and minimalist that the customers are afraid to interact with it. –  cockypup May 20 at 17:50

The silver bullet is user-testing, but that's not always viable, unfortunately.

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I didn't really specify this, but not for software. This is mainly targeted at print design or web design, aside from web apps or usability. –  Matt Rockwell Jul 28 '11 at 18:38
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You can user test anything. Most people don't like spending the money or time on it, unfortunately. But there's informal ways to do it. The big problem with most clients is that they think you're designing for them. You shouldn't be. You should be designing for their target audience. It's their customers' opinion that should matter. –  DA01 Jul 28 '11 at 19:06

There is no silver bullet. As you know, part of being a designer is about being a salesman. The sales process does not stop when you land the gig. You have to sell every idea you have, and time and time again convince your client that your idea is better, or else risk being seen as their monkey who is simply responsible for taking what is in their head and turning it into a comp. But I think I am preaching to the choir here.

So how do you sell someone on the idea of whitespace? Well, it depends on the person and the situation obviously. The approach and philosophy I use though is more or less the same regardless of what idea I am trying to sell.

  1. Listen to the client. In order for you to sell any idea of yours over a competing idea the client has, you have to make the client feel heard. This involves all of the skills associated with "active listening." I repeat what I hear the client saying back to them. I literally say, "What I hear you saying is that you feel..." If they don't think you understand them or are not listening, they will just dig their heels in more.

  2. Focus on the problem being solved. As a designer you are first and foremost a problem solver. Remember that, and always have in mind the specific problem you are solving through any design technique you are using. With this in mind, ask the client to articulate what problems they are trying to solve by adding more to a page. Try to get them to focus not on the solution (adding more information to the page), but on the problem they are trying to solve. Then repeat the problem you hear them say back to them. Sometimes it also helps to give the client a little more time to think about it, or to see another revision.

  3. Understand the business objective. This is a slight tweak to understanding the underlying problem, but sometimes it helps you and the client to better understand the business context or business objective behind the change. Sometimes, the client has a very good reason for the change, you just don't understand it. Maybe they have a program they really want to promote, or maybe they are under pressure to increase click throughs on the site, or to drive traffic to a profitable item. Who knows? But sometimes, phrasing your questions in this context, helps the client better articulate the problem you need to solve - a problem your comp might not be addressing currently.

  4. Give the client a little time to think. If you don't think you can get the client to agree to your design right then and there, then suggest that what you want to do is consider their feedback, and see what kind additional solutions you can come up with to address what you have heard them say. Make an honest attempt to address their concern with a new revision. In a subsequent call, begin with reminding the client about the problem you are solving with this new revision, and then explain how your new revision directly addresses that problem.

To summarize, and to bring this back to the issue of whitespace... the key is always to focus the client on clearly defining the problems for you to solve. Whitespace is a solution, not a problem in and of itself. Just remember, most people don't think in a problem-centric way. They take the problem for granted in their own mind, and immediate jump to the solution. So when they say "can you put more information into the sidebar?" Respond with, "interesting idea. Can you help me understand why that information is important to you?" After all, it is not outside the realm of possibility that whitespace is the perfect solution to a problem, just not for the problem the client actually needs you to solve.

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Not to detract from lawndartcatcher's excellent answer, there are some additional pointers that might help:

  • Don't ever make the client wrong, especially when they are. Clients are human (for the most part, anyway), and if there's one thing a human can't stomach it's being wrong. This is so much the case that proving to someone that they're wrong absolutely forces them to maintain their rightness against all logic, and will pretty much guarantee you never do business with them again. What you have to do is acknowledge they "have a good point," and you understand the concern, then show them that there's another aspect to the problem that they "may not have considered" because it's not intuitive/not common knowledge/a secret among successful advertisers (which gives them the idea you're about to initiate them into an elite insiders' club).

  • You can take the approach that, "You know, Mr. Jones, I used to feel exactly the same way." (Maintains the relationship, indicates you understand and don't think them wrong.) "But after a few projects that didn't get the results I wanted for the clients..." (indicating you're on the client's side, that you have experience, and that this isn't just you trying to be superior) "... I realized how true the old maxim is, about 'Less is more'."

  • Talk to them about the three stages of an ad: Interrupt (Attract), Engage (Interest), Educate (Deliver the message). Unless the piece grabs attention right away (and for a web page, an ad or a flyer you have about a half-second at most before the viewer clicks away/flips the page/tosses the piece), it doesn't matter how much copy is on the page; it will never be read.

  • Use the example of a single short sentence in the middle of an otherwise blank page. It is impossible not to read it, because it's so startling (attracts attention) and mysterious (piques interest) that no-one can resist.

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Excellent language suggestions. –  Farray Jul 29 '11 at 3:58
    
Great answer (+1). I wish I could learn to have that finesse of language. –  cockypup May 20 at 17:52
  1. Show them Google's home page
  2. Show then Yahoo's home page.
  3. Show them Google Search Engine's market share as compared to Yahoo

for extra points

  1. Show them Bing's page as well and then go back to the above market share report

finally

  1. Clear browser cache, reload Google and Yahoo pages using Firebug's Net tab (if on Firefox) or the simliar bundled tool that comes with most browsers (Opera, Chrome) and compare/contrast the loading time of each.

Conclude that a lot of "unused" white space is in no way bad, while at the same time putting everything and the kitchen sink on one page does not guarantee success.

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I think your examples are great and illustrate the "blank space" necessity very clearly but I have used this technique before (showing them good examples) and... ta-da! the client invariably produces an example of the "design style" he would like to use and backs it up with the financial success of their example. Unfortunately there are many unappealing designs that have been financially successful out there. –  cockypup May 20 at 17:56

This is an old question, but there are new bullets. Clients that, um, hire designers for very good reason are usually easily convinced by a flashy number that they can correlate to potential customers and profit. White space is there not only because it looks better or some designers agreed to like it, but because it guides the eye and makes visitors focus on what's important - your client's message.

You can use a tool like EyeQuant to visualize what your visitors will see on a website and also compare different versions, and basically it spits out numbers like "In the version with whitespace, your CTA will be seen by 70% more people in the first few seconds than without whitespace". It also generates really neat heatmaps which look very convincing on a project presentation ;-)

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+1 for the amazing tool (EyeQuant). Now I am bound to become addicted. –  cockypup May 20 at 18:02
    
It's insanely expensive for simple freelancers, but good for medium to large enterprises. –  Mr E. Upvoter May 26 at 14:58

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