Sacred Space

We were cleaning up our house last week when my frustrations and exhaustion brought my attention to a certain concept that I believe is important in many aspects of life: space. My mom has a lot of old stuff like an ancient, bulky rocking chair and an enormous, technologically obsolete cassette player to name a few. In my opinion, all of that junk should already be thrown out, but she still insists on keeping them. They just gather dust in some corner and compete for space not only with useful furniture but also with the residents of our household. They deny us our much needed breathing room, both in a physical and mental sense.

Clutter can actually be a dangerous thing, and I don’t just mean with furniture. On more levels than one, there are things in life which we do not need anymore but still hold onto. But clutter can hamper productivity and efficiency. Space is important in the office, in traffic, in between musical notes, in personal relationships. And space is also important in all aspects of design: your “space” as designer, whether on a physical, emotional, or intellectual level, and the element of space in your design output itself.

A lesson I picked up in my graphic design classes is that before you start working on anything, you need to establish your “sacred space.” This refers to one’s working state, both physically, mentally, emotionally, maybe even spiritually, and it differs with each person. This of course works beyond graphic design. Some people want to work on their own while others are more comfortable in groups. Some may work better while eating Snickers while others work best with music playing. The trick is to find your sacred space in which you are most comfortable and productive.

On an intellectual level, space is important in terms of your conception of ideas. In the creative industries, there is a saying that you have to learn to “kill your babies.” The babies here, of course, figuratively refer to your ideas. Regardless of how good you think they are, there will always be raw ideas that you have to disregard as you go further along the the creative process for the sake of the bigger picture or the overall direction. A guitarist may have come up with a cool riff, but it may be too grandiose for the low-key song he’s composing. A writer may have thought of an exciting, climactic fight scene, but the dialogue may have been out of character for the protagonist. A designer could have come up with a brilliant element for a brochure study, but perhaps it deviates from the initial direction he thought was best for the client. Killing these babies de-clutters your creative mind and refocuses you to the task at hand, thus making room for more productivity.

In the visual aspect of the design, space allows the elements of your design to breathe. Space is actually a design element itself. It is used to establish visual balance or is utilized to guide the eyes of the audience to focus on certain elements. There is also a technical aspect of space in your layout, as proximity implies relationship. In the layout of a feature article, for example, the article’s title will appear to be more relevant to a border embellishment if it is closer to that than it is to the body text. Space affects the design and, ultimately, it affects how the information is communicated. It is used to establish a clear sense of structural integrity, achieved by recognizing the importance of a grid and defining relationships amongst design elements. Little details such as these are often overlooked, but when executed correctly, they bring about a more disciplined design output.

Some graphic designers are afraid of space. I have encountered a few who manifest this in their works, and if you look at most of the posters and fliers scattered everywhere, you wouldn’t miss it. Besides unnecessary embellishments, a common manifestation of this hatred of space (and an unrelenting bane of graphic design) is the careless distortion of text. This is usually committed just to fill up space which that designer deems as unnecessary. There are really a lot of instances, but this is commonly seen in public service announcements and, just this year, in electoral campaign posters and fliers.  As discussed in Ellen Lupton’s book Thinking With Type, distortion of text is just one of many “type crimes” in which space is not respected. This example of amateur work ethic shows disregard and ignorance, and as my graphic design mentor used to put it, it is “a barbarization of civilization.”

Personally, I love space. I love minimalist designs, and I abhor seeing too much patterns, embellishments, information, etc. This is reflected in my own designs. As I was writing this, I came to understand why my mom does not want to throw some of those old junk away. Each person likes their space in their own certain way, and that has to be respected. That is not to say that you can’t attempt to guide others when their taste affects other people. 

— Kenneth Umali

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