It is well established that the visual structure of a document contributes to the viewer’s understanding and “design serves a rhetorical purpose” when “designers can control the usage of specific functions and critically engage in arguments” (Brumberger 14, Almeida 186). Today, white space is one graphic-design element that is a means of persuasion and is used for commercial rhetorical purposes. Many experts have been calling for the “reinsertion of rhetoric as a bridge between graphic design theory and practice” (187-8).
Advancing New Theory
The study of white space as a rhetorical device is in its infancy. Research and authorship to advance visual theory using this single visual trope is just emerging. Yet, the study of white space offers a unique opportunity to demonstrate how both producers and audiences of commercial rhetoric share common meanings of this visual rhetorical device. Implications from the study of white space will thus advance theoretical formulations and contribute to the evolution in commercial practices.
One group of authors is attempting to build new theory about visual rhetoric and white space. In 2006, Pracejus, Olsen, and O’Guinn examined white space in advertising because the use of white space as a rhetorical device is common in advertising.
The study of white space is particularly useful to advance theory because visual rhetorical theory has historically focused on representational and pictorial realism, elements that distract from more fundamental theoretical issues (Pracejus 82). Those distractions are absent when we study white space because there are no overlapping problems regarding resemblance, picturing, and representational correspondence (82). Moreover, white space, a nonpictoral visual trope, is virtually undefined in advertising research (82). In advertising practice, designers have always known that white space had a function and value – that it was not “nothing” (83). But, in terms of visual rhetoric, white space’s specific meaning is only now being studied. In their authorship, Pracejus, et al have utilized established socio-historical theory and their new research in to advance visual rhetorical theory.
The new theory of white space starts with the premise that “advertising depends on the use of various conventions or socially agreed upon rules of language” (82). And, the advertisers’ audiences learn the conventions of ad language by “cultural immersion and socialization” (83). “Rhetorical convention is always a matter of history. Things mean what they mean …through agreement by social actors and publics that certain linguistic forms mean certain things. Producers and receivers come to agree upon linguistic and rhetorical meanings over time…whether words or visuals” (83).
Today, white space is “used to convey elegance, power, leadership, honesty, trustworthiness, a modern nature, and a refined taste associated with the upper social strata” (82). Pracejus, et al argue that the meaning of white space emerged through three distinct historical moments: the minimalist movement, the corporate art movement, and the minimalist movement in architecture that all peaked in the 1960’s (83).
The mimimalist movement was a reaction against art that was deceptive and illusory and advertising that was harsh, loud, deceptive, authoritative, and aggressive (83). Minimalism was characterized by extreme economy and a reduction of things to their “essentials” (83). In the corporate art movement, minimalist forms and tropes (including white space) created images of dignity, trustworthiness, elegance, and authenticity (84). Today, white space advances this same image (84). Pracejus et al said, “White space is a rejection of artifice, a strip-down unity, a gesture of powerful elegance to the reader of the ad….It’s a rejection of illusion and a celebration of materiality” (85). The minimalist movement in architecture was characterized by an uncluttered, clean look (86). Today, white space is linked to the clean, uncluttered look prized in that movement (86). Thus, Praejus et al concluded that white space shares meaning with and has cultural capital power due to these three sociohistorical movements.
Pracejus, et al did two studies on white space, one testing what producers of white space thought it meant; the second testing what readers of white space made of it. They tested whether “the social history of the white space trope still informs its contemporary meaning” (86). They advanced visual theory in commercial rhetoric by proving that visual tropes (especially white space) derive their meanings by cultural movements and social forces.
Methods and Results
The producers tested were creative directors at American advertising agencies. The issue tested was the brand meanings/signals conveyed by the use of white space. Several major meanings emerged: prestige of the brand, market power of the brand, trustworthiness of the brand, leadership of the brand within the industry, and the quality of the brand. Secondary meanings were: the brand being healthful, contemporary, and approachable. (86-7). The study also showed that “the impact of the white space increased with the size of the advertisement” (87). These finding were “consistent with the meaning found in white space’s social history” (87).
Results showed that white space is quite influential with brand perceptions. In ads with white space, the product was perceived as higher in quality, prestige, trust, and leadership and lower in risk than when the same product’s ad lacked white space. Also, “purchase intention” was “found to be significantly influenced” (89). And, “two measures of market power (market share and large company) were both significantly affected by white space” (88).
Conclusion of Study
This study showed that white space is “a lot more than nothing” and by tying history to rhetoric…this particular trope retained its essential commercial meaning and endures as a rhetorical convention” (89). The authors concluded that as a visual rhetorical device, white space conveys elegance, power, leadership, honesty, trustworthiness, modernity, and a refined taste associated with the upper social strata (82).
Additional Support for New White Space Theories
Other authors examined aspects of visual rhetoric that reinforce the findings of Pracejus, et al.. McQuarrie and Mick found that favorable attitudes towards ads diminished or disappeared when individuals lacked the cultural competency needed to adequately appreciate the contemporary ads (McQuarrie, Mick, 37). They found a powerful connection between rhetorical theory and cultural competency theory - that sociocultural knowledge in large part establishes an ad’s attractiveness and rhetorical impact (37). This reinforces the findings of Pracejus, et al who used “sociohistorical theory” to explain the rhetorical impact of white space.
Also, Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver looked at the role of visual rhetoric in global advertising, starting with the accepted notion that visual images are “culturally bound” and that their meanings are derived from the cultural lens of the viewer (51). They found that interpretations of visual rhetoric are not uniform across cross-cultural settings. Rather, viewers of visual rhetoric style elements, such as white space, look for socio-cultural meanings, reinforcing the findings of Pracejus et al.
Knupfer and McIsaac looked at the effect of white-space variations on reading-speed and comprehension in educational materials, seeking to find the precise point where white space interferes with reading speed and comprehension (75). They found that comprehension of text dropped when there was more than ½” of white space between the graphic and the text (79). However, differences in white space had no impact on reading speed (79). Therefore, designers of instructional materials should limit the use of white space, taking advantage of aesthetics while also maintaining an optimal level of comprehension.
Many educators such as Stephen Bernhardt and Eva R. Brumberger have called for increased emphasis on visual rhetoric in the business communication curricula (Brumberger 32-9). They call for a move away from “format” and towards “design” that is a rhetorically based process (325). Today, business communications rely on visual rhetoric for impact (328). Therefore, students must master document design (including the use of white space) because the ‘supra-textual’ level of a document design has a big impact on the viewer’s first impression, which consequently affects their entire interaction with the document (328).
The ‘supra-textual’ aspect of document design involves “global” visual elements: textual, spatial, and graphic” elements (Kostelnick 9). The use of white space affects credibility, tone, and emphasis. Kostelnick calls fo more attention to macro-level visual rhetoric in documents, rather than only internal elements. He stresses the importance of white space borders around the page or around extra-textual elements (13). Also, Gordon studied how college students designed “complex documents,” to learn how designers use the rhetorical approach to composition (97). Forthcoming results will add to emerging theory regarding the rhetorical impact of white space.
Future Area of Study
There is a call for studies of white space as a visual rhetoric trope in the World Wide Web. In “digital media, the ethos, pathos, and logos of business documents are determined not only by verbal rhetoric but also by visual rhetoric and the interplay between the two… [P]articularly in the digital media, the balance between word and image has shifted considerably…toward the visual” (Brumberger, “Visual” 319). The Web is still an emerging rhetorical medium. “An emerging medium develops and refines its visual style by refashioning the styles of existing media” and all media are ultimately embedded within cultural contexts (Cook 1). Clearly we get meanings of visual rhetorical devices from the ‘cultural context’ from which they emerge. As such, the use of white space on the Web will likely mirror the use of white space in print mediums.