White spaces

Jean-David's picture

I have often heard that typography is more about the white spaces.
I've been practicing in graphic design for around ten years and consider myself a pretty decent typographer, certainly not a typography superhero but decent. Yet I still have a hard time grasping the "white spaces" concept.
Contributions anyone?

kentlew's picture

In case it’s not clear just from the site that Dave linked above, Cyrus Highsmith’s approach in his Inside Paragraphs book is all about identifying and understanding the different kinds of white space, their hierarchy, and their interactions.

typerror's picture

Some say that the clinking of the glasses during a toast was meant to involve the "final/fifth sense"... hearing.
Using pens, as a first resort, has provided me with spacing skills that I would have missed out on otherwise. I find white spaces, spacing, etc. to be a lot like the rhythm and meter found in music. I find I am more interested, as I age, in the spaces/time between the notes.
Much like one's inability to pull apart a thread of music, without disrupting the flow, one must look at the paragraph in toto. One of the first books that gave me an "Aha" was a little book by Rudo Spemann, it took me a year to see the "white" but what a revelation it was.
The book by Cyrus is wonderful and augments what I have learned by doing.

typerror's picture

The typeface was Gavotte. What a beauty!

hrant's picture

Whitespace is instinctively hard to grasp (probably mostly because we're taught to mark the black, because that's what's practical) which is probably why it generally gets short shrift, but it's also possible to give it too much relevance (perhaps as an over-reaction to the established "injustice"). Because really, the important thing is notan: the unity and relationship of black and white. Practically speaking, this means we should ideally design their border, not one or the other. Which is easier said than done!

hhp

5star's picture

"Music is the space between the notes." Claude Debussy

n.

Nick Shinn's picture

“Drawing is taking a line for a walk.” —Paul Klee

It seems to me that there are three kinds of typeface:

  1. Thin lines
  2. Thick lines (both slab and sans)
  3. Varied line
hrant's picture

The only real lines are the invisible ones between black and white; seeing black bodies as being made of lines is a limiting illusion.

hhp

typerror's picture

Thank you 5star!

Hrant, that is a limiting perspective, you are in essence saying the white, as well as the black, do not exist. It takes both to create texture... Notan IS that very relationship!

hrant's picture

Black and white certainly exist, but only because the other does. The most important thing in black and white is that "and". :-)

You can render the black and ignore the white; you can render the black and keep an eye on the white; or if you're an idealist you can try to render notan, which can only be done through what I've come to call "liminography", the drawing of the border.

hhp

Rob O. Font's picture

"...which can only be done through what I've come to call "liminography", the drawing of the border."

...and must be done at the bottom of a lake. Other people may feel free to call liminographic notanocentric border-drawing, "letter drawing" for short.

hrant's picture

Isolation can indeed be beneficial. :-)

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

The three qualities of positive mark which types may possess are:


One-dimensional: line with no thickness, with an equivalence between letter as line and letter as counter.
Two-dimensional: line as area, emphasizing the graphic flatness of the surface upon which the mark rests.
Three-dimensional: complex shapes suggesting natural objects with depth, and/or a depth to the substrate.

Counter shapes and spaces between letters have a different relationship with each of these, and consequently with the document surface as a whole, of which they are putatively a part.

5star's picture

You're most welcome typerror !

Perhaps Debussy ( as did Frank Lloyd Wright et al) was simply using Lao Tzu's "Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.", to own his benefit ... and there's no shame in that.

n.

Jean-David's picture

thanks daverowland
Finally got it and read it. Nice and down to earth, exactly the kind of thing I was looking for, and i got my ahah moment...
On my side I'm afraid I was looking in a way to complicated direction...

Jean-David's picture

BTW, Anyone knows the paper it's printed on, pretty nice as well

Nick Shinn's picture

White spaces, sometimes known as notan spaces…

Joshua Langman's picture

Playing around with metal or wood type is great for thinking about space as a typographer. Suddenly, all your spaces are physical things that have to fit together just right.

hrant's picture

But that's now an arbitrary constraints, so cannot lead to optimal design.

hhp

rs_donsata's picture

White space out of the realm of type design is the main resource to establish the visual hierarchy of graphic elements and rythm. Rythm is not about the sounds but the spaces between the sounds. Rythm is a way to work with human perception, you set a rythm and an expectation, then you play with it by bending or breaking the rithm.

hrant's picture

There is no rhythm is text face design.

hhp

kentlew's picture

BTW, Anyone knows the paper it's printed on, pretty nice as well

The first edition of Inside Paragraphs was printed on Glatfelter 60# Spring Forge Antique.

William Berkson's picture

>no rhythm

The Fourier transforms on blocks of text show a periodicity in text faces, bands of black and white. Another way of saying this is that in a the vertical strokes in a word tend to fall near vertical lines a set distance apart, namely half the width of the n.

As Héctor says, deviation from the exact periodicity is part of what we 'read'. It is analogous to the regular beat in music, and the varied rhythm over the beat. When the typeface doesn't have that periodicity is like a dancer who 'loses the beat,' and can't dance to the music.

One feature of good handling of white space is to get the widths of the characters and the side bearings in a font to relate to each other so there is that strong, but not totally regular periodicity. I think failing on rhythm, harmonious widths and sidebearings, is the most common failing in type design.

Because our eyes do not move continuously across the page, but in jumps, saccades, the analogy with music is not complete, but the periodicity, with regular beat and varied rhythm is analogous.

hrant's picture

Better than deviating from an illusion is ignoring it.

hhp

enne_son's picture

Hrant, the periodicity, moving horizontally across the word or lines of text, that Bill is referring to in his post above, is what I have been calling ‘narrow phase alignment.’ Perfect phase alignment is like a grating, and gives rise to a picket-fence effect in type. In a sense, the periodicity is an illusion, but the narrow phase alignment around a periodic mean is a fact, documentable with Fourier Transforms.

I think of narrow phase alignment as relating to the black.

The whites to me are a bit of a different story. I think good notan requires that the whites inside and between letters are all “in synch.” What that means specifically in terms of individual letters is difficult to describe, because, for example the o and the bowls of d / p / q / b have a circular expressedness, while n / h / u have a predominantly oblong or rectangular expressedness, and the a / e / s / z have a distrubed expressedness. So there must be a deviation from perfect equivalence to approximate a kind of optical cohesion.

The narrow phase alignment in the blacks and the optical cohesion in the whites hold the word together in gestalt terms as an internally well-composed visual unit.

You might insist there is no rhythm in text face design, but if you deny that the narrow phase alignment exists you are just wrong, and if you deny that it is important for easy word-recognition, you are telling me you are out of touch with what happens in the visual cortex during a fixation. In reading alphanumerical symbols, the visual system uses spatially frequency channels tuned to statistical regularities in the stimulus.

This has yet to be shown empirically, but I think it will eventually become evident to researchers looking at reading, that both the narrow phase alignment of the blacks and the rhythmic cohesion of the whites are critical for the rapid automatic visual word-form resolution that underlies reading.

hrant's picture

What kills this whole thing is that there is no pattern in saccade length, because the content determines that.

There is a rhythm in reading consecutive lines (because lines don't vary in length, within a composition) but that's beyond the spectrum of letterforms.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

…there is no pattern in saccade length…

That doesn’t matter, because one takes measurements not from how far the muscles of the orbit move, but on the surface of the retina, in units of rod.

hrant's picture

No matter where you measure it, there's no pattern of flow (AKA rhythm) at the letterform level.

hhp

Maxim Zhukov's picture

I love this quote:

Richard Fink's picture

To follow up on 5star's Debussy quotation - something more recent:

Writing With Miles Davis.

Does it apply to type? Of course.

hrant's picture

Musical composition is display type; text type is the sound of the forest.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

Nothing 'kills this whole thing' because what Peter wrote about narrow phase alignment is just true. The eye can only see about 8 letters clearly at text sizes, and over that range you do have the periodicity. It is very clear to me that the brain throws some kind of matrix over the text to interpret it. You can see this from the difficulty of reading mixed upright and italic text. If you 'accordion' type it is also much harder to read.

hrant's picture

No, only 3-4 letters (although ignoring the parafovea is ignoring reading). Still, there is no flow, so there is no rhythm. If you're talking about pattern, please use "pattern"; the term "rhythm" reinforces the Chirography Myth, a romantic illusion. That's my only point [here].

hhp

rs_donsata's picture

"What kills this whole thing is that there is no pattern in saccade length, because the content determines that."

Yes, but in order for your eyes to make effective saccade jumps it has to figure out the rythm of the text and predict the location of the next relevant chunk of information based on it.

hrant's picture

Fixation points are determined based on content. What kind of content has rhythm?

Content doesn't even have pattern. If it did so would saccades; but they don't.

hhp

enne_son's picture

Saccadic landing sites are guided by the information provided in parafoveal preview as well as the syntactic status and semantic content of what has been found in prior fixational events. In parafoveal preview, the alteration of the larger word spaces with the smaller rhythmically linked inter-letter and intra-letter spaces plays a facilitory role.

hrant's picture

This alternation has no pattern, hence no rhythm.

Don't get me wrong, I do realize that some fonts do try to enforce rhythm. But that makes them inferior because -just like chirography- it's an arbitrary constraint.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

Hrant, according to this, the sharp vision is 4-5 letters, since there is a smooth, though steep, curve of fall-off in acuity, I was including a flanking character or two adding 7-8 characters total identifiable characters. But it is indeed small. I don't think the parafovea can give you content, but only relative word length, as Peter notes. This is, however an important clue, at least in English.

Yes, the periodicity is not strictly speaking rhythm, because the horizontal axis is not time, but distance. However, the pictures are otherwise the same, so using the term rhythm is not misleading, so long as you understand that reading is by saccades and parallel processing.

The question of whether than hand in motion has anything to do with good or bad type design is totally another question. In fact, I think type, with its repetition of identical characters, forced a greater care with uniformity of periodicity, and a resulting higher readability of type vs handwriting.

So I and almost everyone else will, I think, ignore the Hrant language police and still use 'rhythm' to refer to the very important issue of periodicity in type design.

enne_son's picture

Pursuing narrow phase alignment is a functional constraint.

hrant's picture

Over, and over, and over, again...

If the parafovea didn't deliver content, saccades could never be 15+ letters long. And no, those are not always followed by regressions.

the periodicity is not strictly speaking rhythm

When -as you say- it's distance and not time, it's not rhythm at all, it's just pattern.

It's not police work, it's teaching. But anybody can appease their succubi -and father figures- any way they like.

hhp

hrant's picture

Commodore lives.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

Hrant, according to this—same wikipedia link as above, the average saccade is 7-9 characters, though it can be up to 20. This average is consistent with the parafovea not delivering much semantic information to the brain.

The issues here are the same whether you call it periodicity or rhythm. Getting the character widths and sidebearings to have the verticals hit around the regular 'frequency' of half the n is important.

I don't have any father figures in type, unless it was my late Uncle Ben Lieberman, or William Caslon. Neither never opined on these issues that I know of.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

hmmm, or the Timex Sinclair..

hrant's picture

This average is consistent with the parafovea not delivering much semantic information to the brain.

What is this, a presidential debate spin room? Excuse me, but what kind of peon is going to fall for that sort of contrived logic? "The average length of a human stride is 2.6 feet, therefore humans never have a good reason to jump".

Getting the character widths and sidebearings to have the verticals hit around the regular 'frequency' of half the n is important.

Disagree.

Timex Sinclair

Which came five years after my first computer, the Commodore PET.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PET_2001_Series-IMG_1724.JPG

hhp

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Really? I guess I was only really aware of the 64.

enne_son's picture

re: the parafovea / [not] delivering much semantic information to the brain.

The parafovea delivers visual information to the visual cortex. The deeper you go into the parafovea, that coarser the resolution capabilities of the parafovea are. Critical details of the role-unit components of letter forms (bowl / stem / counter) get lost or scrambled. Beyond a certain point, and up to about 15 character spaces, only “ensemble statistics” or “summary statistics”, that are sufficient for the guidance of eye movements, but insufficient for unambiguous word-recognition are available. Still, in the near parafovea the resolution capabilities are often sufficient for the visual system to predict and confirm correctly the identity of short contextually expected words like ‘the’ and ‘in’ and ‘at’ without having to attend to them specifically. Except in [to clarify: with the exception of] these cases, fixational attention is required for identification to occur. Also, in the near parafoveal, just beyond the reach of foveal vision, there can be what is called “eccentric enhancement” of what strictly speaking falls in the near parafovea just outside the actual fovea. This has the effect of enlarging the “uncrowded span” to the point where 5 to 8 letter words are fully accessible in a single fixation to parallel processing.

enne_son's picture

By the way, I think it is plausible that robust deep-parafoveal predictions about word-identity are selectively made on the basis of semantic context and lexical expectation, relative to the new ensemble of summary statistics encountered in a specific parafoveal preview event. But in these cases accurate sense following requires confirmation and confirmation requires fixation on the word, rather than skipping. If efficient processing of the blacks and whites in parallel is the issue here, the relevance of phase alignment in the blacks, and rhythmic cohesion in the whites is again key)

The frequency of this depend on the “given” versus “new” (to the text – not the reader) status of the words in the text at hand.

Providing informative summary statistics (hpp: boumas) is a design challenge here, and the relationship of providing informative summary statistics to meeting the constraints governing efficient processing during a fixation is what needs investigation. Probably there are countervailing pressures here and the solution is a balancing act.

hrant's picture

insufficient for unambiguous word-recognition

The brain is heuristic (because that's more efficient in the long term). Unambiguity is for mindless machines.

The decreasing acuity of the parafovea (plus the fact that saccades do go way beyond the fovea) is exactly why [multi-letter] boumas exist; Kevin is probably correct that you don't need boumas in the fovea, and that's probably why they don't show up in his fovea-centric field testing.

This has the effect of enlarging the “uncrowded span” to the point where 5 to 8 letter words are fully accessible in a single fixation to parallel processing.

And evidence of even longer saccades* clearly extends that range, because absolute certainty is not the point; if the bouma is distinctive enough, and if the context is helpful enough, you can read it very deep into the parafovea. But there's no point referring to that as an "extended fovea" - just call it what it is: the parafovea delivering content.

* Exceptions are what let us see inside.

hhp

enne_son's picture

I think my description is more informative about what happens in reading, and provides a richer, more accurate description of what kinds of reading-side constraints and challenges the type-designer and typographer work under.

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