As good as my eye might be after years of looking at letters, arranging white space is where I always fall short. And you can tell immediately when someone has fantastic white-space skills. It’s like watching a tea ceremony that’s been acted out every day for a thousand years; natural and intricate, careful in a careless way. But, for me, it’s still difficult all these years later.
Wait, what’s white space again?
So when you first set type in a book or a screen you’ll start to think about different kinds of “space”: letter-space, word-space, paragraph-space, heading-space. You’re thinking about which fonts work well together and how the text should be arranged and aligned. But it takes many years of doing this to learn that what you’re actually doing is arranging the white space between all these other spaces. There’s another dimension that you’ve never noticed and it was always there, bugging you.
See the margins either side of this text block? That’s what I think of as the white-space, the counter-space. See the sliver of a gap between the paragraph above and this one? That’s also the counter-space. And when this thing is cared for deeply then you can see it a million miles away. The margins feel just right. The headings and letters and everything just snaps together so neatly. In fact, if you select the absolute worst font in the world but you have great white space then it almost doesn’t matter.
Type designers talk about this all the time — the counter space between things — the black space of the letter and the white space of the bounding box it sits in. Take the letter a for example. You can draw the top part, the swooping belly, and the foot with a crayon and there you have it, that’s an a. But a type designer is likely to look at the letter in reverse or in outline; they’ll design all the space around the a instead of thinking of it as a series of lines and curves strung together. Imagine if the a was punched onto card and all you had was the leftover piece with a big hole in it. That’s what type designers often see.
It’s a strange way of viewing the world of letters. Instead of looking at the foot, they’ll look at the white space between the bowl. They’ll think and act and move in these counter spaces, just the same as punch cutters at the very beginning of this art saw their letters, too.
A close friend has great white-space skills and it’s infuriating. She’s not a type designer, but somehow has learned this secret that lies just outside my reach. Every bit of text she sets is always the perfect distance from every other thing, as if the text could be set no other way, as if it was all destined to fit together like this.
To take my skills to the next level I know I need to see the world in this other, unfamiliar way. I need to see the counter-space.