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White space and tiny type; balance needed for reading

Occasional Observer

Each month my wife and I receive a dozen or so magazines of various kinds, most of them interesting looking and very professionally designed. But for me, many of them have a characteristic flaw: however handsome they may be, some are often difficult to read.

In graphic design, white space is the space found inside and surrounding the other design elements. Despite its name, white space needn’t be white; it might be any color, pattern, texture, or even a background image. 

We tend to associate a large amount of white space with luxury and sophistication. At a fancy restaurant, food is arranged very neatly and carefully, sometimes on several plates, with plenty of “white space” whereas, at a family diner the food is piled up on one plate with little room for even the plate to show. The same search for elegance applies to graphic design: too many objects detract from the overall look. White space lets the food look its best. The elements left out, the white spaces, are just as important as those the chef creates. 

Designers refer to “micro” and “macro” white spaces, the former being, for example, the small areas between letters and words and the latter being the larger volumes of space, say between columns, paragraphs, and graphic elements, the background. Both are important in most any graphic design.

For decades, the more avant garde graphic designers have been exceedingly enamored of white space, probably because a generous use of it allows a designer to be more creative and expressive. Inevitably, designing a page of text and graphic components such as margins, sidebars, photos, pull quotes, charts and other elements involves tension between squeezing in verbal information and presenting everything in an appealing and uncluttered way. And an unsatisfactory resolution of these conflicting demands causes a reader’s attention to wander.

In addition to graphic design, the associated discipline of typography has a major influence on how one appreciates printed matter. Nowadays, thanks to computers, there are thousands of typefaces although only a few dozen are used frequently for text (as opposed to those employed just for headlines or special effects), these being usually easier than most others to read. The more popular typefaces usually have a family of variations (regular, light, bold, italic, etc.) thus allowing a rich variety within an overall discipline. 

Typefaces are classified as serif or sans serif, the former having a small line or stroke at the ends of its letters (Times, Baskerville, Palatino), the latter (Helvetica, Futura, Gill Sans) not. A few, such as Optima, are somewhere in between. Traditionalists have argued that serifs make blocks of text easier to read. Others disagree and say that sans serifs are more modern, more appropriate for our times, and no more difficult to read. 

Unlike with a book, in a poster or advertisement text is normally secondary to white space, thus giving the overall picture more artistic possibilities. With only a small amount of text, readability is second to creating a powerful and alluring image. And even if the text is distorted, it is usually readable because there is not much of it and it’s surrounded by ample white space.

Most people over 35 need glasses to read type smaller than 12 point, the most common size for a letter (the typical point size for newspaper or magazine copy is 9 or 10 point). Typefaces for periodicals’ texts are usually selected for exceptional readability and are generally in black, with backgrounds normally white or off white. Text over a photograph is more difficult to read as is text in colored type. 

White text on a dark background is much harder to read than the reverse. Tiny type with point sizes less than 10 are challenging even for those with 20/20 vision. Type is definitely too small If one needs a magnifying glass in addition to spectacles in order to read a word.

Graphic designers sometimes go too far in their search for greater artistry. Often the additional white space gained by shrinking the type is trivial and hardly worth burdening the reader for. What can be particularly infuriating is to encounter a substantial amount of  text in tiny type on a page that also has an excessive amount of white space composed mostly of margins (the edges of the page). Similarly annoying are other elements such as very small pictures surrounded by voluminous white space. As always, proportion is key.

Such unnecessary difficulties for the eye challenge a reader’s determination to read the entire article and seem particularly unwarranted since today most readers of newspapers, magazines and other printed matter are more often than not middle-aged and, to read, need all the help they can get.

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville (and needs glasses for reading.)

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