Appendix B
Episode 021 -

UX Principles: The Art of Creating Breathing Room

Appendix B Episode 21, text is present that reads, "UX Principles: The Art of Creating Breathing Room"

What is the relationship between white space, quality, and user trust in web design? In Part Two of our series on UX Principles, Kristin and Joel chat about the relationship between all three.
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Carl Gratiot:
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. This week we have our second installment of our series on UX Principles. This is part two, the Art of Creating Breathing Room. And now here are your hosts, Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Joel Goodman:
So Kristin, we have been talking about white space, and specifically about using more space in web design and why it’s a good thing.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the quality side of it, because, well, one, I feel like I actually have some things to say about that, which is good. So my wife has an MFA in fashion design and you know, she like me is big on history and loves like fashion forecasting, but really digging into the history of clothing and construction and stuff. And, so if you think of white space in terms of fabric, right? So like there were times, especially during wars, during recessions, when the upper class would, you know, just have these, well, I think about like Victorian days, right?

Like how big the dresses were, how much fabric was involved in it, or like, you watch any movie that’s got any sort of royalty in it and you know they’re wearing a lot of fabric and it’s because this amount of clothing indicated status, indicated quality.

And I think that’s one of those things, those visual cues, for better or worse, one of those visual cues that still exists in our culture today only it’s made its way into digital spaces and it’s made its way into, you know, cars and into all, all kinds of, all kinds of attainable objects, and things like that, but there is this sense that more air, more space, more, more, you know, negative space I guess.

But giving things more space to breathe on a website does indicate a level of quality that you may not see. And, you can see that, I mean, honestly, you could see that in operating systems, right? You can look at what, like Windows 95 or Windows 98 used to look like, and even at the same time what Mac OS looked like.

And they, they communicate very different things. The semiotics involved in how their signaling, their level of quality, or their personalities just in design elements is really interesting because Apple always gave Mac OS a lot more space to breathe and Windows was perceived as more utilitarian or more business or more, you know, engineering focused sort of a thing.

And not until recently did they start expanding the amount of white space involved in their user interfaces. And you can see this on websites, you can see this on university websites, and there was actually a shift probably, this was probably around 2014, 2015 when some institutions really started, upping their game on the design front, so, we were going from these, you know, three column wide, internal pages with six menus and a whole bunch of dense paragraph texts and widgets everywhere to these big, full width, you know, maybe a, maybe a two column in parts, but never consistently sort of layouts within pages that allowed things to breathe, and we see that with high quality brands.

So I’m wondering what you think in terms of how this indicates, quality, you know, what have you read and kind of discovered?

Kristin Van Dorn:
Yeah, well so I think that there’s like two ways to look at this. Like, one is that when you have the affordance of time, or the affordance of capital that you can give things more space. And so that’s part of that signaling, right?, but I also think that it’s, when you look at the other side of things, so as opposed to something that is really densely cluttered, what’s happening there is that there’s a breakdown in a little bit of trust.

In the sense that there are all of these competing ideas that are coming at you at the same time, and it’s an overwhelming sensory experience, right? And once you’ve overwhelmed the sensory experience, that reduces your ability to keep track of everything that someone is pushing on you. And so, like for example, if you go into any shopping experience and you have more than one person trying to talk to you at the same time, and they’re trying to tell you features and benefits of the items that they’re trying to sell to you,

it’s gonna be hard for you to track and maintain that mental list of the things that are important to you, of the things that you know you should care about, of the new information that’s coming in, that you want to assess against the information that you came in with, and that overwhelming sensory experience will break down your ability to make the decisions that are best for you.

And so we don’t trust the environments that do that to us. We don’t trust websites that do that to us. We don’t trust like in-person experiences that do that to us. So when we’re recommending that there be more negative space in a user environment, that’s because what we’re trying to say is we’re gonna simplify this for you, make it easy for you to take in this information so that you can make the decision that’s best for you.

Joel Goodman:
It’s interesting cause there really is a difference in that perception, right? That that perception of when I come to a website and there is that open space and you know, you said earlier this idea that like, you know, if you have the time and affordance to like make this, you know, it can be well thought through.

If it’s not that way, if it’s cluttered, that erosion of trust comes at so many different levels, and one of those is like, well, they must not have really spent the time on this. It looks rushed, or it looks like it’s been forgotten, or it looks like things have just been piled up. And I think what’s hard is that a lot of non-designers really, I mean it’s, you know, or non, non UX professionals don’t understand the ability that little changes or little effects and little design elements can have on that perception for people. And so, you know, it could be the difference between, you know, if you’re say like on an eight pixel grid, the difference between, you know, doing an 80 pixel padding between sections versus a a 64 pixel padding.

Like that’s not a lot of pixels between those, but it does leave affordance or, you know, having a section that’s 90% the full height of your of the window that you’re looking at versus something that is 33% or 50%, with the next section coming in right after it.

The little changes that seem not that big of a deal and like are tightening things up a lot of times aren’t tightening things up. It’s just cluttering things up and it, and it makes it feel like it’s had less thought put into it than it probably has.

Kristin Van Dorn:
Yeah. It kind of gets back to a theme of Bravery work on hospitality, that when you can have less things, but the right things for a user to focus on, that means you’ve given a lot of thought to who they are and what their preferences might be and how to set up an experience for them that will be the most comfortable and the most transparent for them to make good decisions for themselves.

And that is, that’s part of hospitality, that’s part of expressing to them that you think that they matter enough to care for their experience.

Joel Goodman:
So I was out at a new restaurant that just opened in Louisville from a fairly well known chef, with some friends and there were four of us, food was good, but the one thing that got in the way was how small the table was for four people.

And so we ordered a bunch of food and we put it out and we were at the point where we were having to combine food onto different dishes just to make space for it. They didn’t allow enough space at that table. And I think it’s similar when you go to someone’s house for a dinner party and, you know, they’ve squeezed everyone in and your elbows are hitting other people’s elbows.

Like you may still have fun and enjoy it if you know the people really well. But if you know you’re at a stranger’s house and that’s happening, depending on the situation, you feel like they didn’t put the thought into making sure that everyone had enough space to enjoy themselves.

I think that’s a really interesting way to think about white space and design to think about the space that we leave for people to breathe and consider and kind of be within any experience that we’re, that we’re kind of putting together or trying to plan.

When you don’t think that through and you don’t provide that space, people are gonna be a little bit more uncomfortable than they probably should have been.

Carl Gratiot:
Thanks so much for listening to Appendix B. If you enjoy the show as always, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. And if you wanna hear more from us, please check out our Higher Ed Hot Takes newsletter at Thank you so much and we’ll see you next week.