In defense of white space (and choices)Gmail's new design offers plenty of white space... and a good example

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Gmail has had a very interesting redesign. (I love the big fat red "Compose" button. Doesn't work on me, though; I press it, and I'm just as anxious as ever.) You can read about some of the details on the Gmail blog, including an account of the choices they made around designing the left sidebar.

That redesign has a number of people upset at the amount of white space it involves. I get that: it's great to be able to skim tons of information at a glance. And nobody leaps out of bed grinning from ear to ear and says, "I get to do lots of scrolling today!"

But white space has its virtues, too. In the hands of a skilled designer, it can guide a user's focus to the handful of things that matter the most on a page - maybe even letting you think about one thing at a time. (I know: heresy!) Yes, lots and lots of information can be great, but there's real truth to the adage that when everything's important, nothing's important.

Back when I was designing leaflets and mailings for Members of Parliament, there was a constant battle between those of us who wanted to maintain some structure on the page and a sense of hierarchy, and the MPs who wanted to add just one more paragraph of information. "It can go right here - see that blank space? Oh, and there's more blank space over there. You know, if you dropped the type size to nine points, we could fit a lot more stuff on!"

Thing is, for a small number of constituents, the jam-packed-with-information, looks-like-a-Dr.-Bronner's-Castile-Soap-label leaflets actually worked. They loved 'em. And for those few dozen people, if we'd had the time and resources, it would have made sense to create a separate version.

But for the thousands of others we were trying to reach, not so much.

Google does have the resources, and in addition to the airy default (or "Comfortable") layout, you can choose "Cozy" and "Compact" (or, as I call it - affectionately - "Bill Blaikie mode"). If you're feeling the need to flood your eyeballs, by all means make the switch.

But maybe give "Comfortable" a chance first. You may surprise yourself.

And then ask yourself if your web site has enough room for your users to breathe - even if it means a little scrolling.

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