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Defining Space

Defining Space

In graphic design, white space is a necessity, but it is only successful if space has been well defined. Whether it’s a poster, magazine spread or book cover, all layouts must create a sense of cohesion and closure. The elements on the page shouldn’t feel unanchored, like they’re going to escape or drift away. Of course, there’s always room for surprise and excitement and rule-breaking, but the unexpected should exist within a framework of order and permanence.

The importance of defining space has become even more clear to me after hearing James Howard Kuntsler talk about the importance of defining space in civic design. (I wrote about Kuntlser’s TED Talk, The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs last week and this week I’m drawing on his wisdom again.)

For Kuntsler, public spaces are like outdoor rooms and the way that buildings are built – their proximity to one another, their height and how they’re arranged on a city block – determines our level of comfort within that place. In other words, composition applies to three-dimensional space just as much as to the two-dimensional page. 

To create outdoor public spaces that define space effectively, Kuntsler points to the principles of interior design. Furniture divides up a room, provides comfort and facilitates activities, and the structures, buildings and landscape of public places define the civic realm. For example, trees provide a “vaulted ceiling and spatially denote the pedestrian realm,” according to Kuntsler. The role of trees is essential because without a ceiling to enclose it, any space feels incomplete and off-putting. A vast empty wall without artwork feels like it will stretch on into infinity. But a picture grounds that wall, gives us a sense of its limit, and as a result, makes us feel comfortable and at home. 

I love it when concepts cross disciplines: In interior design, architectural design and graphic design, a thing lacks satisfaction if there’s no sense of enclosure.