White space - get it? A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Polar bears in a snowstorm

IF YOU FIND YOURSELF saying, “There’s nothing in the newspaper these days,” you are undoubtedly correct. Large white and coloured voids are in, as are expansive photos with blank areas, such as a distraught goalie kneeling in a huge goal mouth adorned only with a missed soccer ball. In its new format, a typical Saturday Globe and Mail has about 7 per cent white space and a further 3 per cent of plain, solid colours (not counting photos with plain expanses). A Saturday Toronto Star has 6.5 per cent voids, while a National Post has 4 per cent. By comparison, a recent Alternatives edition had 6 per cent.

White space, “ground” or “negative space” adds flair and enjoyment to our reading, but it also has marketing, political and environmental implications. So, where white space is concerned, should designers consider factors that are unrelated to design?

The voids that are integral to artistic expression are seen anywhere: In Francisco de Goya’s troubled Agony in the Garden, Escher’s impossible architectures, Arab tiles, Rothko abstracts, Chinese prints, painted Hopi pottery. While personal aesthetics are paramount to artists, most graphic designers must employ white space to garner the attention of readers and buyers. A classic and innovative example was Volkswagon’s Beetle advertisement of 1961, a blank page with just a caption: “No point in showing you the 1962 Volkswagen.” But in today’s newspapers, advertising white space is like snow on the prairie: initially startling but ultimately banal. Still, the depiction of products is molded by societal whims, mores, economics, technologies and advertising clients, and successful designers play to these influences.

The vogue for white space is no more serendipitous in books, and relates both to presentation expectations and to marketing. Publishers’ design philosophies vary, but subject matter heavily influences white space usage. The books on my desk include Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing, a slim, sparsely illustrated volume with 5.1 per cent white space. In contrast, Sturken and Cartwright’s design-orientated text, Practices of Looking, is lavishly illustrated and thick, with an astonishing 41 per cent white space.

Traditionally, editors crammed copy onto the page. By the 1990s, these dense-printed layouts contrasted poorly with the absurd cheapness of internet publication, a format that liberated new-media designers to play expansively with white space. The market for print media also sagged with successive electronic innovations like PCs, Blackberries and iPads. So what were newspapers to do?

In response to these trends, The Globe and Mail launched a new format in 2010, in which front page headlines, banners and graphics swathed in white space direct the reader to articles within. The Globe pitches the new format to advertisers as resembling a magazine, but these design devices seem to mimic the hot buttons that steer us through web sites, and they echo the “interaction design” movement of the electronic community.

Regardless of style and marketing, using trees for “nothing” incurs environmental impacts. Indeed, The Globe’s Adrian Norris, whose work involves editorial layout, relates that “environmental cost was a huge topic” when the paper was formulating its new design strategy.

Using industry figures for converting wood to pulp, and taking typical amounts of usable wood from boreal foresters’ tables, one can estimate the impact of voids. A typical Saturday Globe has 28 sheets of paper (56 by 54 cm printed on both sides, which when folded makes a total of 112 pages) with a print circulation of about 311,000. Allowing for substantial recycled paper content, a single Saturday edition translates to 9.5 tonnes of trees harvested for white space. That’s approximately 0.08 hectares of primary boreal forest – half the size of a NHL hockey rink – or 1.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent released to the atmosphere from the soil carbon pool. One could extrapolate further to calculate nestlings crushed by logging skidders, caribou habitat erased and energy used in manufacture. But these calculations can be arguable.

In contrast, white space can also be read as creating employment, and its impact quantified using industry productivity statistics. One Saturday Globe’s white space, for instance, employs a pulp industry worker for about three weeks. It also maintains more tenuously estimated labour among loggers, chemical manufacturers, truckers, pay clerks, printers and advertising industry staff. Using white space is one small factor promoting forestry and mill work, stemming the tide of economic decline in small towns in the mid-North, while helping sustain vibrant southern cities like Toronto.

This does not mean that white space has power only in terms of design and commerce. In the 19th Century, various European governments censored all print media. In a typical case, in the Siberian Gazette of 1881, “choppage” by Russian authorities was so egregious that the editor replaced deleted text with blanks such that “small islands of print had been left in a miniature sea of white paper.” The authorities hurriedly confiscated all copies, and telegraphed the publisher: “Blank spaces … are an implied protest … and cannot be permitted.” Numerous other countries have had similar experiences, and as I write, newspapers are using white space to flag censorship in Egypt, Iran and Venezuela. In modern China this practice is known as “putting in a skylight.”

Thus, white space manifests as a wicked problem: difficult to resolve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements. Solving for one part of the problem may worsen existing difficulties or cause new ones.

And this returns us to the original question: When is design creativity more important than externalities?

Even if designers know all the implications (and who can?), and they are inclined to wrestle with the issues, they still need to weigh the unrelated factors of ecological loss, aesthetics, economic stimulus and reader response. After some environmental debate, The Globe’s team chose to use more white space. Whether you applaud their élan or regret the environmental cost probably depends more on your fundamental outlook than on detailed information.

The “nothing” of white space is an allegory for the consumptive decisions that we all make. How much onus falls on us to understand the externalities before making any decision? Would omniscience paralyse us? And does knowing more change any of our decisions? Learning the details of “nothing” may not change our perspectives on anything.

Sidebar: Calculating the Impact of White Space

AFTER WEIGHING several weeks' worth of newspapers, the resulting figures were extrapolated based on The Globe's most recent print edition circulation audit. (The 310,000 weekday average from 2010 is conservative.) Percentages of white space were measured from rectangular areas in the layout that were larger than 20 cm2, including solid coloured areas and advertising material, but not including photos. The recycled paper content (40 per cent) was estimated using data published on The Globe's website (globelink.ca/newspaper/faqs), and an adjustment was made for clay coating in the remaining 60 per cent, assumed to be fresh pulp.

For the conversion between wood and pulp, a factor of 0.9 was used to conservatively minimize the forest area affected, derived from David Briggs' "Forest Products Measurement and Conversion Factors," on the Rural Technology Initiative website (ruraltech.org). All forest figures also use conservative area estimates, and the ratio of pulp to wood used is 2.39m3 of round wood per tonne of pulp (derived from UN forest conversion factors).

The calculation from wood weight to forest area was made using Plonski's Normal Yield Tables for Ontario, assuming a primary forest harvest of 100-year-old trees and a relatively high gross total volume of 250 m3/ha (the typical range for Spruce is between 158 and 425 m3/ha).

Roger Suffling is an ecologist, environmental planner and adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo. His family has long been involved in printing and design. This article was inspired by rambunctious debates across the dinner table.

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