Whitespace in design

The fine art of white space in documents, web pages, and more is an art form with many, many rules. White space, also known as negative space, is the empty space between elements (text, graphics) in a design. White space is used to improve legibility and to add balance, focus and impact. The combination of different techniques becomes complex and it is important to understand each and use them correctly.

In this post:

  1. Margins
    1. Gutter margins
  2. Horizontal
    1. Spaces
    2. Tab Stops
    3. Image & Table alignment
  3. Vertical
    1. Line spacing
    2. Paragraph spacing
    3. Breaks
  4. Tables
  5. Columns
    1. Column breaks
  6. Text boxes
  7. Headers & Footers
  8. Drop cap


Margins comprise the area at the top, bottom, left and right of the page in which text will not normally appear; they are the blank space around the edge of the page. Margins for each of the four sides can be set independently. Margins can be set per section in a document.

Margins in Microsoft Word.
Margins in Microsoft Word.

Vertical and horizontal alignment between left and right margins is possible.

Gutter Margins

Gutter Margins allow extra space for the purpose of binding a document and can be added to any side to accommodate any type of binding.



The Space bar is used exclusively to add one space between consecutive words. There should never be 2 consecutive spaces in any document (double-spacing is an old and outdated practice). Normal rules apply as to where spaces should appear. Watch specifically for the following:

There should never be spaces:

  • between a word and a full stop, comma, colon or semi-colon
    This is a sentence . This is a sentence.
  • immediately inside the opening or closing brackets of any kind:
    ( some words ) (some words)

Read the post on checking spacing in a Word document for more.

Tab Stops

Tabs should be used to create horizontal space where one space is not sufficient. Custom tabs should be created where default tabs of 1,27 cm are not suitable. See the post: Mastering Tab Stops in Microsoft Word.

Image and Table alignment

By default images and tables occupy the full width of a document regardless of their width — that is to say that text before or after a table or image will be placed above or below those elements, not next to them (this principle exists in HTML as well). This default can be overridden using wrapping.

The same effect can be created in HTML; the image to the right of this paragraph has been aligned to the right of the page and the text wraps around it.


A common error in word processing documents is the misuse of the Enter key to create vertical whitespace. Correct line spacing and paragraph spacing are critical for legibility.

Line spacing

Line spacing is the space between the lines within a paragraph.

Paragraph spacing

Paragraph spacing is the space between paragraphs or between paragraphs and headings.

Paragraph spacing between paragraphs, and spacing between a paragraph and the preceding heading, should always be greater than line spacing within paragraphs.

The space between a sub-heading and the previous paragraph should be greater than the space between that same heading and the paragraph that follows it.


Documents are broken into pages and sections using a variety of breaks. The default break is the Page Break which can be inserted using the keyboard shortcut CTRL + ENTER.

Different Break options in Microsoft Word


Cell margins and spacing can be used in Microsoft Word in the same way that cellpadding and cellspacing are used in HTML tables. The settings are at table level.

Tabs can be used in tables at the cell level, but you must use CNTRL+TAB as pressing the tab keys moves the cursor to the next cell.

Line spacing and paragraph spacing can be implemented in tables at the row or cell level.

Vertical and horizontal alignment can be set within cells at the row or cell level.


Text can be arranged in columns. The spacing between columns can be modified and column breaks can be used to control the flow of text in columns. The space between columns can be modified.

Column settings in Microsoft Word.Columns in Microsoft Word.
  1. Select the text that you want to format in columns
  2. Click on the Columns button on the Layout tab and select the More Columns… option
  3. Select the number of columns you require
  4. Select the Equal column width (or deselect it to create unequal column widths in Step 5)
  5. Set the column Width and the Spacing width respectively
  6. Select the Line between option if you would like a vertical line separating the columns of text
  7. Click on the OK button

Column breaks

Fine control can be asserted over the text in the columns using column breaks:

Columns in Microsoft Word.Fine control of text in columns using a column break.

Text boxes

A text box is incredibly helpful when you want to place text or other content outside of the normal flow of the document. Text boxes themselves can be formatted (borders and background) and positioned absolutely or relatively. They can also be stacked (placed over or under other elements of the page).

The fill of the text box can be set to transparent which can be used to great effect when layering text boxes over other content or over other text boxes.

Headers & Footers

Header from Top and Footer from Bottom spacing can be used to create vertical spacing in headers and footers.

Drop cap

This effect entails making the first letter of a paragraph considerably larger than the rest of the letter in the paragraph. The first letter of this article is a “T” to which the Drop cap effect has been applied.

  1. Select the first letter of a paragraph and click on the Drop Cap button on the Insert menu
  2. Select the Dropped or In margin option
  3. Select a Font
  4. Select the number of Lines to drop (3 or 4 seems to be optimal)
  5. Set a Distance from text (creates additional space between the letter and the paragraph of text)
  6. Click on OK to apply the effect

By MisterFoxOnline

CAT Educator

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