Plain White Page

When it comes to art - painting, writing, advertising - everything starts with a white page. The work is to vanquish the white, but to do so in a way that's never been done before.  There are as many ways to get rid of the white as there are novels, paintings and banner ads on Earth. Some do it better than others.  

"A blank canvas is white, but a yellow Post-it is white, too," says Ari Merkin, founder and creative director of Toy, New York. "The desert in Nevada was white before somebody came along and saw the opportunity for Las Vegas."
"White is the base that gives shape and form to all visual communication. It is the first tool in the artist's arsenal," he says.

Of course, knowing how much white to leave - and where to leave it - is no less essential to the creation of good art than knowing when to get rid of it. Think of Miles Davis or Ernest Hemingway - artists who make powerful use of blank spaces. Then think of Apple, Gap, Ketel One. These brands, like Davis and Hemingway, harness the power of white - not the color, but the absence of one - to draw the eye in and focus the viewer's attention on the little something they add.

For example: Two characters, PC and Mac, have a simple conversation against a pure white background, and we are drawn into the exchange. The background sets it off in sharp relief, and establishes a world where two characters represent two kinds of machines. Or in the newest iPod ad, nine brightly colored iPods are placed against a stark white background, drawing attention to the now-iconic design, which consumers will recall was originally available only in white.

Apple's TV work "does a great job of getting right to the message and making it interesting," says Conway Williamson, co-chief creative officer, Euro RSCG New York. "It's sort of Lee Clow's thing, and he does it really well."

Ketel One made a statement with white a few years ago that's still got impact today. It began running print ads that were pure white pages with nothing but small written statements or questions in black at the top. Whether or not you enjoy the approach (or the vodka), you're going to read that statement. Got Milk? ads saturate the screen with white - to represent the product as much as draw the eye - and the viewer thinks of purity, cleanliness and elegance.

"White used in advertising - or any design, for that matter - is usually used less as an actual color and rather more to highlight or draw attention to other colors or content," says Bryan Houlette, art director for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, who works on the California Milk Processor Board campaign. "The term 'white space' is often heard in design as a way to make particular elements, be it type, a photo or graphical element, breathe and therefore stand out in a composition. It offers balance and a way to establish importance or significance, be it more or less. It's all in how you use it."

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of white in advertising, and theories differ as to why. One is that marketers are naturally inclined to mark up the space they're paying for - much like a young musician is compelled to cram as many notes as possible into a solo. The result of such anxiety-induced creativity is rarely pleasing.

"I think successful marketers understand that white space doesn't need to be occupied
simply because it's being paid for," says Merkin.

Of course, the danger in such an approach - leaving lots of white to offset what you've created - means you'd better create something worth looking at. Otherwise all you're doing is drawing attention to a weak, unimaginative creation. Miles Davis's long stretches of silence would have sounded incompetent if what came between wasn't so gripping.  

"When it comes to execution, you'd better make sure you have something original to say" when using a lot of white, says Euro RSCG's Williamson, "or you're going to look like everyone else. And then all you've done is create wallpaper."
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