White space, thinking, speaking, doing

Compare these two images.

Despite the fact that the left-hand advertisement proclaims its message in bolder and larger text than the right-hand one, I think the right-hand one has a greater impact. However, in some contexts an advertisement like the one on the left would be entirely appropriate. The image, and the insight, are taken from an interesting article by Mark Boulton at A List Apart on the use of whitespace in design.

The content is the same on both designs, as are the other elements, such as photography. Yet the two designs stand at opposite ends of the brand spectrum. Less whitespace = cheap; more whitespace = luxury.

A lot more goes into brand positioning than just whitespace, but as a brief lands on your desk for a luxury brand, it’s very likely that the client—and their target audience—expects whitespace and plenty of it to align the product with its competitors.

It is clear from the article that a key part of the designer’s job is as much judging how much to leave out as deciding what to put in. I think there is something there for lawyers to learn too.

It is difficult for someone with clearly defined skills, tasks and tools to hold back from doing what they do. A blacksmith with a hammer and an anvil needs to use them quickly and effectively. Too much time spent pondering where to strike the hot iron is not time well-spent. Likewise, a lumberjack shouldn’t pause mid-way through felling a tree. On the other hand, good craftsmen will plan their work carefully — “measure twice, cut once” is not a meaningless mantra — and so wielding the appropriate tool is not usually the first thing that they do. Sometimes I think this is not a discipline that comes easily to professional services advisors.

When a client comes to us with a problem, our natural inclination is to flex our muscles. “I see what your problem is; I’ll draft this document and we can start clearing things up…” Because of the tyranny of the billable hour (a topic best dealt with elsewhere), we need to show that we are solving problems with recorded time and demonstrable outputs (documents, meetings, e-mails, phone calls). Often, however, the client is not interested in those things — their focus is on the outcome, not the output.

A little while ago, Bruce MacEwen asked “Are you beginning to get the same creepy feeling I am, that large organizations discourage deep or creative thinking?” This question was prompted in part by a discussion piece on Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge site: “Why Don’t Managers Think Deeply?” That piece starts thus:

A since deceased, highly-regarded fellow faculty member, Anthony (Tony) Athos, occasionally sat on a bench on a nice day at the Harvard Business School, apparently staring off into space. When asked what he was doing, ever the iconoclast, he would say, “Nothing.” His colleagues, trained to admire and teach action, would walk away shaking their heads and asking each other, “Is he alright?” It is perhaps no coincidence that Tony often came up with some of the most profound insights at faculty meetings and informal gatherings.

I sense that, especially now, the opportunities for creatively doing “nothing” are very limited in law firms and similar organisations. Unfortunately, now is the very time in which we need profundity in our thinking. Our leaders need that space in which to ponder things, so that they can lead us out of the current mess. At any time, when working with clients, we can only produce a better quality outcome by cogitating before drafting. The white space in a magazine layout does not take away from the words on the page — it enhances them. In a similar way, the time we spend thinking about what to do, or write, or say, the better those deed or words are likely to be.

There is another school of thought, exemplified by a light-hearted essay by Heinrich von Kleist: “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (“On the gradual formation of thoughts while speaking“). It can be read as a carefully thought-out manifesto for blogging.

My dear thoughtful friend: if there is something you want to know without being able to find it out through meditation, turn to any acquaintance you run into to talk about the matter. There is no need for him to be a sharp mind. Also, I do not mean to say that you should ask him about this matter: Oh no, never! Rather, you should tell him the solution yourself. I can see you making big eyes and telling me that you have been advised earlier to speak of nothing except of what you understand. But at that time you may have had the mad ambition to instruct others. but I want you to tell him so you instruct yourself!

The French say l’appétit vient en mangeant, and this empirical maxim remains true if one makes a parody of it and says l’idée vient en parlant.

Often I sit over my papers and I try to find out from what angle a given conflict has to be judged. Usually, I look into the light, as the brightest spot I can find, as I try to enlighten my inner being. Or else I seek out the first approach, the first equation which expresses the obtaining relations, and from which the solution may be derived simply through plain arithmetic. And look what happens: as soon as I talk to my sister — who is sitting and working behind me — about this matter, I realise what hours of hard thinking have not been able to make clear to me. It isn’t as if she was was telling me in any direct sense. She does not know the law, and has never studied her Euler and her Kästner. Neither is that what she leads me to the crucial point through deft questions — although this latter case may occasionally occur. But since I have some vague thoughts that are in some way connected with what I am looking for, then once I have embarked on the formulation of the thought it is as if the need to lead what has been begun to some conclusion transforms my hazy imaginations into complete clarity in such a way that my insight is completed together with my rambling sentence.

I don’t think Kleist is proposing a different approach to the pursuit of white space in our work. Rather, he is suggesting a way of dealing with the inevitable consequence of thinking: thoughts. When we ponder, we may generate many possible solutions to problems. We are then faced with the difficult task of gauging which of those solutions is the best. Alternatively, some of our thoughts may be more fully-formed than others, and we need to guard against them — the inchoate ideas may actually be the better ones. If we do as Kleist advises, we can start to see how things fit together or how they might be flawed. For me (and for others, I suspect) this is one of the benefits of blogging. It helps me sort things out in my own mind, even if nobody else takes notice. (But many thanks to those of you who do, of course.) It works in other contexts as well. In the programming context Scott Ruthfield says: “when you’re stuck, write it down.”

Say you’re trying to figure out how to do something in [pick a framework], and you’ve Googled the heck out of the most-likely search terms, and nothing’s coming up.

Then write down your question as if you were going to ask a teacher/email it to a friend/post to a Google group/etc. Write down all the details: explain the thing you’re trying to do, the problem you have, and the number of things you’ve tried. Be as clear as you can, but don’t worry about being concise.

Literally every single time I’ve ever done this – and my rule-of-thumb is to do it after ~1.5 days worth of trying to figure it out myself – I find a number of new avenues to try, and almost always solve the problem on my own.

Putting these elements together, we can see that effective use of white space in our work comes when we combine thinking time with active reflection through the recording of ideas, questions, thoughts, half-baked conclusions. That will allow us to see what we know that will help the client achieve the outcome they want (or identify the gaps that can be filled by others). As a result, this approach will produce a better-quality product — as we saw at the outset, that is one of the consequences of carefully-used white space. Doing without thinking leads to the kind of cluttered, shouty, low-quality output that is exemplified by the first picture at the top of this post.

(Scott Berkun adds another benefit to writing without thinking too much about the output. It can break through a blockage. “The secret, if you can’t start, is to begin without constraints. Deliberately write badly, but write.” That is a different issue from the one I have touched on here, albeit similarly challenging.)

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2 Responses to “White space, thinking, speaking, doing”


  1. 1 Gordon Rae 8 March 2009 at 22:27

    Do lawyers not have Dasein? (Heidegger) Or Flow? (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)? I bet they do. But they express disdain for “admin” tasks, so it’s hard to elicit their tacit knowledge about their knowledge making process.

    I find Heideggerian approaches really useful when studying the work of elite communities of practice, and I’m completely embarrassed to have forgotten who wrote “Computers and Cognition” Winograd and Flores, I think. A geek and a linguist from memory. It’s past my bedtime…

    • 2 Mark Gould 10 March 2009 at 09:38

      Thanks for the thought-provoking questions Gordon. I think many lawyers would regard white space as outside the flow. In particular, the kind of “staring into space” thinking that the HBS professor liked is apparently devoid of goal or direction, and the lack of tangible output from such activity means that clear and immediate feedback on it is impossible.


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