The other kind of white space

4 min read
Christopher Jones
  •  Sep 30, 2019
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“There’s too much white space.”

If you’re a designer working with clients, this is probably a phrase that has been heard time and time again. White space, which refers to the negative space on the page not filled by design elements, is necessary in order for a composition to appear balanced and be read by the natural eye. In design school, we’re taught that “white space is your friend.” 

I often find myself explaining to clients that white space is the key to creating “clean,” non-cluttered designs. It activates the other elements on the page, drawing the eye to what’s important. It can be uncomfortable or unsettling at first, but the right amount serves a functional purpose.

I’ve been navigating white spaces for my entire career. 

When I was in high school, I applied to a competitive summer enrichment program for students in the 10th-11th grade called the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. Touted as a program for the best and brightest scholars in the state, entrance into the program required an interview and portfolio review. 

“There are very few spaces where designers of color can learn to thrive in a world where they are not the dominant population.”

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I still remember entering the room that one of the reviewers, a white woman, saying to me, “It’s great that you are applying in 10th grade because if you don’t get it, you’ll have another shot to get in as a junior.” I got in the first time, and I was the only African American male student in the entire Visual Art cohort.

It was at the Governor’s School that I received my first formal training in graphic design, taking courses every weekday alongside drawing classes. Though being in a white space wasn’t ideal, this one, in particular, was necessary for my growth and helped prepare me for what was to come.

I continued the path of graphic design into college, where I decided to pursue graphic design as a major. The university that I chose had a small, but dedicated, faculty of four instructors—all of whom were white. Three years later I faced my second competitive portfolio review: this one in order to officially declare graphic design as my major, and as one of two African-American design students who passed the portfolio. Another white space.

This white space brought me to AIGA, the professional association for design—another white space, one that opened doors to other white spaces I would soon inhabit.

Meanwhile, back at my nine-to-five job, I was experiencing workplace bullying for the first time. At first, I received rave praise from my supervisor about my work. However, she moved on to bigger and better, and I began to report to the department head. I went from having an avid advocate to having an extreme micro-manager with unreasonable demands. I became depressed, not understanding fully why I was experiencing this situation, and ultimately resigned from the position.

As I began to look for my next opportunity, I began to carve out space of my own. I took on freelance projects and began to take classes for small business owners. Thinking back to the experiences I had as an AIGA officer, I have seen several design firms, but very few of them have been minority-owned. There are very few spaces where designers of color can learn to thrive in a world where they are not the dominant population. We have to restore the balance and create safe spaces where designers can grow, scale, and create.

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