Space: From Physicist's and Designer's Perspectives

15 AUGUST 2013 | @ahsan_s | Design | Science | Design | Science | 1300 | 1326 | 5

Empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particle that pop in and out of existence in a time scale so short that you can't even measure them.

   Lawrence M. Krauss, 2012

White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.

   Jan Tschichold, 1930

 Empty Spaces: © 2012 by Wilfried B.

Space, to most of us is emptiness. Something that is waiting to be filled. A backdrop for other things but in itself is not seen as conveying any meaning. One has to fill it with something for it to be interesting. It is mostly a placeholder for other things of interest. Space is like an empty canvas where the drama of life plays out.

But if we look beneath the surface through the eyes of a physicist or a designer, space is anything but. From their perspectives space is truly enigmatic.

Physicist's Space

Imagine a universe without matter or energy. A universe with nothing but empty space. Physics, a branch of science that deals with matter, energy and their interactions and transformations would cease to exist in such a universe. Such a universe would be truly uninteresting.

But we started out by saying, or at least implying, that space is not just emptiness and not an entity of no interest by itself.

Matter tells space how to curve, space tells matter how to move.

Interestingly the laws of physics dictate that such a universe cannot exist. A particular principle of quantum mechanics, known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that you can borrow small amount of energy from literally nothing (empty space) as long as you quickly return it. In space this happens spontaneously. Energy is borrowed, giving rise to a particle and an anti-particle (made of anti-matter), they quickly find each other and annihilate in to nothing (borrowed energy returned). The phenomenon is known as spontaneous quantum fluctuation. You can view a computer animation of such quantum fluctuations here.

 Photo credit: WGBH Boston

Furthermore, no matter how smooth and uniform space looks like, it has inherent properties. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, the presence of matter distorts or warps space. The more massive the object, the more warped the surrounding space. You can think of this in terms of a heavy object on a rubber sheet similar to what's shown in the adjacent figure. General theory of relativity explains gravity as this curvature in space that causes other nearby matter to move toward the heavy object. Thus the planets orbiting the Sun are not being pulled by the Sun; they are following the curved space-time deformation caused by the Sun.

A consequence of this is that light, which is normally said to travel in straight line in vacuum, is caused to follow a curved trajectory in the presence of heavy objects due to the deformation of space, which has been experimentally proven about a century ago.

It has been said that matter tells space how to curve, whereas space tells matter how to move. Literally.

 Quantum Foam created by quantum fluctuations

Lets quickly review what we just learned above about space: (1) particles spontaneously pop in and out of existence throughout empty space, and (2) presence of matter causes space to warp. Now, if we combine these two facts about space, then at a very microscopic level space is violently fluctuating and looks like what is called a quantum foam.

Another interesting fact about space is that, even though it appears as three dimensional to us, according to String Theory (which successfully explains a lot of experimental facts and observations), space is ten dimensional, where other than the three we see are 'curled up'. This however still remains to be experimentally proven.

Designer's Space

How does a designer see space? First off, empty space in graphic or web design is often referred to as negative space, which is primarily to indicate that white space does not necessarily have to be literally white, it can be of any color as long as it is empty.

Designers often use negative space for the following three purposes:

  • Create grouping
  • Create emphasis
  • Improve legibility

This image from Adobe Photoshop Help page uses white space to create a natural visual group that is separate from other groups. It clearly takes advantage of our natural tendency to group like objects together to aid in better user interactions with the page.

Notice the adjacent image, which is a great example of emphasis. An abundance of white space focuses emphasis to the image and makes the message even more powerful.

Negative space also improves readability. If a web page looks too crammed, it definitely causes the reader to do more work to find what he or she is looking for. Negative space thus creates more breathing room to aid legibility.

As you can see, a designer does not see space as merely something to be filled to be useful. A good designer can use space effectively to convey variety of meaning, including

  • quality (sophistication, exclusivity, luxury)
  • solitude
  • cleanliness
  • purity
  • spirituality
  • openness
  • calmness

I'll end this section with a couple of examples to show how the use of negative space improves quality by creating a sense of sophistication or even luxury.

Consider the following three images, website screen-shot of three computer retailers --- Apple, Microsoft and Microcenter. (Even though the third is clearly not in the same league as the first two, but it doesn't really matter in what we're discussing).

Notice the use of white space in the three web-sites. The gradual decline in exclusivity from the first to the second, and an abrupt decline from the second to the third is quite apparent, which is in line with what's expected from what these companies are known for.

There's nothing wrong about it. Its just that Microcenter targets more value conscious customers, whereas Apple tries to appeal to those who'd be willing to pay more for quality, style and innovation, and the design of their websites reflects the fact.

You'll see a similar effect in the following two images too.

The second image is more brightly colored, whereas the first one uses muted color and yet in combination with how negative space is utilized, the first definitely projects elegance and luxury compared to the second. This would still be true even if the company names were removed from the images.

You'll find many more examples of careful use of white space to convey different mood and meaning if you search online.


Physicists and Designers see space very differently than most of us do. Space conveys deeper meaning to minds trained in those disciplines. If you haven't explored the topic before, hopefully you'll see and think of empty space differently than what you were accustomed to.