The importance of white space

This post isn’t spam, malware or security related.  It’s a story about nice, visual formatting.

If you look at the way I write my blog posts, or if you worked with me saw the way I do my slide decks in PowerPoint, I try to make judicious use of white space.  White space, as we all know, is the adding of line returns around paragraphs so you don’t end up seeing large blocks of text.  That makes it harder to read as your eyes tend to get tired when information is so cobbled together.

Well, the other day, me and my co-worker (the same one from before) got into a disagreement about white space (!).  We’re working on a slide deck to present in a few days, and I said that adding lots of white space is important.  After all, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about white space:

In page layout, illustration and sculpture, white space is often referred to as negative space. It is that portion of a page left unmarked: the space between graphics, margins, gutters, space between columns, space between lines of type or figures and objects drawn or depicted. The term arises from graphic design practice, where printing processes generally use white paper.

White space should not be considered merely 'blank' space — it is an important element of design which enables the objects in it to exist at all, the balance between positive (or non-white) and the use of negative spaces is key to aesthetic composition.

Judicious use of white space can give a page a classic, elegant, or rich appearance.

This link (Better Writing Skills) says the following:

  • White space is essential to readability. It makes the various elements stand out.
  • Too often we cover every inch of a page with text. This results in publications that are intimidating and difficult to read

This blog (Ace of Spades) asserts much the same thing:

Why White Space?

White space is used in every form of design. The role of white space is to break up elements and allow for easy recognition of  different objects. The more white space around the object and the more significance it gets.

In other words, it seems inherently obvious to me that white space is critical when it comes to making material readable.  So, you’ll imagine my surprise when he said that he never adds whitespace to anything.  In fact, he said that he *hated* white space.  Furthermore, he said that email servers or mail clients should remove all white space from email.  Quite frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  What he was effectively saying was that all email should be as unreadable as possible.

Now, I don’t know the full reasons for why he claimed this.  If I were to hazard a guess, I’d guess that the addition of white space adds to the total overall size of the message, utilizing more bandwidth.  Against this claim, I’d say that the additional bandwidth that this takes up is negligible compared to the total overall size of the message and it depreciates readability.  Of course, he is coming from the Exchange world and older versions of Exchange (Exchange 2003, for example) tend to have a habit of collapsing white space.  This was occurring one time when a header was split across two lines (perhaps Content-Type).  Exchange 2003 was wrapping the line to make it a single line.  The problem is that the customer was signing their message with DKIM using the simple canonicalization algorithm.  Exchange was then wrapping the line, and this resulted in DKIM validation at the other side breaking (since signing a line wrapped message is different than one that is collapsed onto a single line).  The fix for this was to sign with the relaxed DKIM canonicalization method but the point was taken – this version of Exchange took some liberties with the text.

Newer versions of Exchange are not quite so intrusive, but when it comes to email, here is my philosophy: Plenty of white space is fine, and MTAs should not do anything to the text.  Hands off!

Comments (1)
  1. I couldn't agree more!  One of my pet peeves with Outlook is when it removes "extra" line breaks in plain text email.

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