08 November 2006
Commentary by Kim Levine
Commentary by Kim Levine

True story. A former London butcher shop was to be converted by its new owner into a stylish cafe. An interior designer was hired and, after studying the problem carefully, decided not to change a thing. Not even the name, "Butcher." The cafe opened, and people sat amongst meat hooks drinking coffee and conversing. Business took off. The owner was delighted. But not as delighted as the designer, who was paid for doing nothing.

As the story suggests, doing nothing does not have to imply laziness, and simplicity does not have to be simple-minded. The solution, though simple to execute, was profound in design. It took a smart, confident designer to realize the excitement and novelty the genuine butcher shop environment would bring to a dime-a-dozen cafe. Doing nothing was an effective use of resources. It also capitalized on an authenticity the designer could never have achieved
by starting from scratch. This kind of innovation gives new meaning to the phrase "economy of means."

New York City-based artist/reductivist Giovanni Garcia-Fenech works in a similarly economical way. He says, "I want to take modern painting's forms and make them carry meaning again by utilizing them in the wrong ways, using the old vocabulary to say new things." One painting, Smurfette, depicts the cartoon character minus her body - just clothes and hair appearing in their proper places. The artist, by removing elements instead of adding them, creates an interesting distortion in the new white space, from which new meaning can be derived.

So let's talk about white space. Designers have long known its value and function. But is white space, literally, nothing? The absence of content? Hardly. White space can be the most important element of a composition, responsible for a design's readability, its eye-popping contrast, its subtle strength, its balance, its beauty, its success. The decision to use white space is important, and it's important that we learn to use it well.

Consider this: be a reductivist for a day. Reduce your design to the minimum number of colors, values, shapes, lines, and textures. Use white space instead of an image, or drop one image in a sea of white space. Use black where you would normally use color. Try a simple sans-serif instead of a hipper font. Tempted to update a logo or redesign a product package? Exercise your "nothing muscles." Keep the existing design and alter it slightly or use it differently.

These techniques strip the medium down to its purest form. By challenging ourselves to create good design without a bag of tricks, we'll reinvent our ideas and rediscover the fundamentals. We'll regain the integrity we'll need to survive as designers in the twenty-first century.

Our best designs happen when we are most aware of the value of the message and the essence of the idea. We achieve this awareness only by letting go of image-making and zeroing in on the concept long enough to truly understand it. Whether we decide to do everything, nothing, or something else in between, we'll know we have achieved a thing of value when our perceptions and our audience's perceptions of the communication are one and the same.

About this article
The above article by Kim Levine appears here with permission from Critique Magazine. Kim Levine designs visualizations of complex information for use in legal cases. She is an art director with FTI/Consulting, Inc. in Connecticut, USA. Copyright 2000, Critique Magazine.

Critique Magazine
Critique is a beautifully designed quarterly magazine that makes sense of graphic design, and is devoted to clear discussions of aesthetics, communications, strategy, and audiences. Critique Magazine explains the thinking behind the styles, and the methods behind the messages, and brings in leading designers and experts from other disciplines to discuss the developments in business, psychology, and technology that will affect design tomorrow.