Less is not more: How white space dilutes persuasion

Visual design affects the credibility of printed messages

This article is republished with permission from China Business Knowledge, the knowledge platform of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. You may access the original article here.

Empty space or white space has been widely used in advertising and interior design to give the feeling of a clean and elegant look. “Less is more” is the message in the modern world. However, will “more” space become “less” effective in communication?

Only a few empirical studies have investigated the effect of empty space on consumer behaviour, and the findings are not clear and are sometimes contradictory.

For instance, a previous study found that surrounding the picture of a product by empty space increases perceptions of the product’s prestige value, thereby increasing evaluations of the product.

However, other research suggests that the empty space surrounding a printed message could draw people’s attention away from the message and decrease the resources they devote to processing it, and thereby decreasing the message’s impact.

In a recent study, Dai Xianchi, an associate professor in the department of marketing at CUHK Business School, looked further into the effect of empty space on persuasion. The study was carried out alongside his collaborators, Robert Wyer, a visiting professor of the same department and university, and PhD student Canice Kwan, now an assistant professor at Sun Yat-sen University.

“People’s construal of the implications of a message goes beyond its literal meaning and the white space that surrounds a text message can affect the message’s persuasiveness,” says Dai.

The researchers proposed that when a statement is surrounded by empty space, it activates more general concepts that there is room for doubt to the validity or importance of the message content.

“In other words, the statement is less persuasive when it is surrounded by empty space than when it is not,” Dai points out.

‘Participants complied less with the message’s implication when the message was surrounded by substantial empty space’ –


Decreasing impact

Seven studies in both laboratory and real-life settings were conducted.

In one study, the team collected 115 images of statements posted on a Facebook page over a one-month period from November to December in 2013, and downloaded a screenshot of each message image to record the amount of space (its image size and text space), audience responses (the total number of likes, shares, and comments), and the presence of non-text elements (a picture of a cartoon character and celebrities, nature scene background, and so on).

At the same time, they used the number of likes, shares and comments as the indicators of effectiveness.

The results showed that individuals’ likings for the statements decreased as the amount of empty space increased. In other words, the impact of a statement decreases when it is surrounded by empty space.

In another study, 126 Hong Kong undergraduate students performed several marketing studies that were unrelated to the experiment. After that, the researchers announced that they could take away copies of the research paper related to the studies on a table next to the exit.

The copies were placed next to two pasteboards, each with a note saying, “PICK ME!”.

The text, font size and type of the note were exactly the same, but the pasteboards were in two different sizes and conditions: A4 size with empty space surrounding the text, and A5 size with limited space surrounding the text.

The results revealed that more students (59.6%) picked up the papers offered with limited space around the text than those printed with more empty space (37.7%).

“It indicates that participants complied less with the message’s implication when the message was surrounded by substantial empty space,” Dai says.

Strength of statement

To examine whether the amount of space surrounding a persuasive message would influence recipients’ opinions when the message was generated randomly by a computer or intentionally by the communicator, another study was performed.

Unlike in other studies, a headline was also added at the top of each quote. In the condition where the message was randomly generated, the headline stated: “The message and the configuration of the image (for example, font, colour, or other visuals) do not reflect the personal attitude or intention of the author.”

On the other hand, in the condition where the quote reflected the personal attitude or intention of the author, the headline read: “The message and the configuration of the image are the result of the author’s free choice.”

In each case, participants were asked to rate the persuasiveness of each statement along three questions: “To what extent do you like the quote?”; “To what extent do you think the quote is important?”; and “To what extent do you agree with the quote?”, from a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much).

They also had to report their perceptions on how strongly the quote conveyed its opinion, and the time they took to make their evaluation was recorded.

‘Our experiment suggested that people infer the strength of statement from the design’


Visual clues

As predicted, the results showed that when the message was generated intentionally by the communicator, participants perceived it to convey a non-significantly weaker opinion when there was substantial empty space than when there was little empty space.

“That is to say, empty space should not influence the persuasiveness of the message if readers believed that the configuration of space and message was generated randomly by a computer,” says Dai.

“Our experiment suggested that people infer the strength of statement from the design – whether the statement is surrounded by empty space or full space.

“This study demonstrates how visual clues, in particular empty space, affect the impact of verbal messages. All our results have shown that people find a message less persuasive when it is surrounded by empty space than when it is not.

“This offers practical insights on advertising and even in political campaigns. For example, a candidate may want to present his messages in limited space rather than empty space to convey his messages more effectively,” says Dai.


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