“The design process is one of sifting through the less important to find the essential.”—Alex W. White in The Elements of Graphic Design (2002).
What White describes is editing.
Editing a layout for a sign usually means simplifying. It is visual surgery. A removal process. It rarely means adding elements to a composition.
At the beginning of the design process, in consultation with the client, there should be an editing out of all unnecessary and needlessly repetitious elements. The goal is conciseness and clarity. Further editing helps establish a hierarchy of importance. One element must be chosen—a word, a phrase, a graphic—to dominate the layout. This becomes the viewer’s entry point into the composition. This dominant element should be emphasized decisively. Nothing should be allowed to compete with it. Nothing else should be allowed to have equal billing. In the short time that most people spend looking at a sign (in moving traffic, about a second and a half at most), it should be possible for a viewer to recognize and understand this one dominant element.
Unfortunately, the sign world today abounds with overfilled sign design that is simply too much work to read. What is the reaction of most viewers when confronted with busy, crowded sign work?
Well, picture this: If you were served a drink filled to the very top, what would be your reaction? Would your inclination be to thank your server for trying to give you your money’s worth? Or rather, would you view the overfilled cup as a problem created by someone thoughtless? If a sign appears to be bulging with copy, if the message looks like it will be a chore to read, most readers will not make the effort required to slog through it. They will simply ignore it.
Furthermore, editing a design is more than just eliminating unnecessary verbiage. It means making a layout look organized by injecting white space to create groupings of related elements and to separate elements that are unrelated. Visual dividers and margins make the parts of a layout look accessible and manageable. Adequate space creates a kind of visual breathing room. It makes a layout look comfortable on a given substrate rather than giving the impression that the message needs the next size larger sign. And if you are not going to increase the size of a sign to gain necessary white space, where is the space to come from to create margins and dividers? Obviously, the elements in the composition must be downsized. And this is one of the real challenges for a novice sign maker who wishes to improve in layout ability: to progress beyond the viewpoint that negative space is to be feared as ‘wasted space,’ and that everything must be as big as possible. Far from being a waste, white space is the glue that holds everything together. Negative space is every bit as important as the positive. What would an individual letter, say, the letter ‘S,’ look like without the negative space surrounding it and within it? The answer is that it would not look like anything, because it wouldn’t exist.
For the beginning designer, learning to see negative space as a design element, and learning to manipulate it to enhance the positive, is one of the most significant strides he or she can make.
If we are accustomed to ‘filling up all the space,’ it may take real effort to force ourselves to edit crowded-looking design. It can be painful, just like surgery. It means learning a new way to think and see. But it gets easier the more we do it. And the end result is not just sign work that has more eye appeal, but signs that are more readable and that can be scanned and assimilated more quickly. Generous use of white space can transform mediocre, easily ignored designs into compelling and effective reader magnets.