The Meaning of White Space

Did the white space above this story attract your attention? Designers in advertising and media have used white space for decades just for that reason.

But why?

Consumers associate white space with "refined taste and upscale qualities," according to a new study that traces the history of its use in advertising. And that history has defined how we view the space.

"White space, or any other visual form, does not have some inherent meaning; it means what it does because of a particular history," the researchers write in the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. "This is a very important distinction in our approach. Most existing research into visuals asserts that a certain thing means this or that because of some inherent feature, and that we can count on it always meaning that. Our research refutes that."

The study was conducted at the University of Alberta and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

The researchers connect the meaning of white space to the minimalist movement in art and architecture and the corporate art movement in the late 1950s. Yet they found that even without specific knowledge about its historical origins, both creative directors at major advertising agencies and typical consumers had a similar understanding of the meaning of white space.

"Advertising depends on the use of various conventions, or socially agreed upon rules of language," write the authors. "Consumers learn the visual conventions of advertising the same way movie audiences understand that dissolves between scenes indicate the passage of time."