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Design and the Rest of Us: Proximity

As you read this post, your mind is automatically distinguishing between words based on how close the letters are together. Spaces indicate that sets of letters are to be understood apart from one another. Youcertainlycouldreadthingswithoutspaces, but using spaces make everything much more intelligible.

Paragraph breaks are also extremely helpful. Whether you indent your paragraphs or put space between them, the message is the same: a thought unit has been completed and we’re moving on to something else. Different writers use paragraphs differently, but the message conveyed by them is always similar.

Our language works this way because our brains work this way. Proximity is a natural indicator of relationship. Most people understand this, but they fail to take into account the natural consequences of this in design. I’ll address a couple of those below:

Spacing is Often Sufficient

Inexperienced designers will often use multiple means of distinguishing content from other content. Everything in group A will be red with a red box around it, while everything in group B is blue with a blue box around it. Using colors, boxes, or lines is a perfectly legitimate way of distinguishing things, but the cases requiring multiple forms of separation are uncommon.

Making this practical, you could form your resumé using all the same font size, using vertical and horizontal spacing to make it visually quite clear when you’re talking about your skill set, your job history, your contact information, and the rest of it. I wouldn’t encourage this because the document would likely end up quite large, but it would certainly be possible.

Generally speaking, the more you communicate divisions in your design with just spacing, the more minimalistic your design will look. While minimalism isn’t everything (bada tsss), staying at least somewhat minimalistic in your design will generally lead to more professional-looking results.

The takeaway here is to always ask yourself how you’re distinguishing the various elements in your design. When you see yourself using multiple methods, ask if you could use fewer. If you’re using color or boxes along with spacing, ask if you could switch to just spacing.

Use Spacing Intentionally

As you’ve read in a previous post, design is really about being intentional. When speaking or writing, it’s important that you not be ambiguous or inconsistent in your word usage. Throwing words in your sentences that, like, don’t need to be there is totally unhelpful to your readers and stuff. Likewise, unnecessary spacing between elements is going to look unprofessional.

Following this metaphor, inconsistent word usage is also unhelpful. Again in writing and speaking, words can have a fairly broad semantic range, but it’s important that you be as consistent as possible when you use them in a given composition. You’re going to define what your spacing means by how you use it. If you’re spacing similar elements in group A by 1cm and dividing between groups by means of a 3cm gap, you’ll throw the whole thing off by arbitrarily spacing similar elements in group B by 1.5cm.

Some people think that design is all fun and creativity, but in reality there is a fair amount of hard work that goes into it. Using rulers, guides, and sometimes even a compass can be an important part of spacing out your design better. If your designing with software, you’ll need to get into parts of the software with which you may be unfamiliar, entering manual measurements to make sure your spacing is consistent. Doing this, though, is important because poor spacing can ruin even the best design ideas.


Be aware of your spacing. Look at how you’re distinguishing between elements and groups of elements in your design and be aware of it. Try to minimize the number of ways in which you’re distinguishing between elements and communicate division with only spacing where such an approach is reasonable. Make sure your spacing is consistent and not arbitrary.

If you want to be sure you learn from this lesson, go try to design something in black and white using spacing as your only means between distinguishing between elements. You might try designing a resume using only one font and two sizes (say Helvetica in 12pt and 24pt); this shouldn’t be too challenging, but you’ll learn a lot from it.

You should also start paying more attention to the the world around you. Both in design and in nature (which is God’s design), you’ll find that spacing plays an important role in how you differentiate between sets of things. Take note of these concepts and try to incorporate them in your designs.

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This article was posted on 08/18/2014 . It relates to these topics:


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