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How to navigate trapped white space in graphic design

Graphic design is all about the use of space — you start off with a blank page, then use the interplay between the design elements and the space to create an aesthetic, evoke an emotion, or convey a message.

Empty space in your design is known as white space or negative space. Despite the name, negative space isn’t inherently bad — for example, in web design, a white background can make it easier to scan text on a page, improving readability and legibility.

In graphic design, your use of white space can draw the viewer’s eye to the main focal points or help create a particular mood. It can also create balance within your design.

However, trapped white space is something you’ll generally want to avoid. Trapped white space refers to small areas of negative space surrounded by other elements and not easily accessible for design or layout purposes.

It blocks the flow of your design and draws your viewer’s attention to the empty space instead of the design elements you so carefully and lovingly chose and positioned.

Trapped white space poses a number of problems for a designer: it can make it challenging to align elements or make changes to the layout without disrupting the overall design. It can also be difficult to access the trapped space for design or layout purposes.‌‌‌‌Avoiding trapped space is essential for creating a visually appealing and effective design. It helps guide the viewer’s eye and makes the design more understandable and engaging.

This article will walk you through some techniques you can use to free your trapped white space, plus a few tips that will help you avoid this problem in the future.

How to work around trapped white spaces in graphic design

Trapped white spaces can throw a spanner in the works for a graphic designer, but if you find yourself with trapped white space in your design, don’t panic!

You don’t have to do your entire design over — try some of these simple steps to deal with trapped white space effectively.

Adjust the layout

One solution to trapped white space is to adjust the layout of the design to create more space or to allow for better alignment.

For example, you could change the size or position of elements — such as text boxes or images — add or remove elements from the design, or separate elements to free the white space and enable it to flow.

For example, if there is trapped white space between two closely spaced text boxes, you could play around with the font size or line spacing to create more space. Alternatively, you could try moving one of the text boxes to a different location in the layout.

Use design techniques

There are various design techniques that you can use to free trapped white space and create a more cohesive image.

For example, hierarchy and contrast can spark visual interest and guide the viewer’s eye. You can create hierarchy by changing the size of design elements, overlapping elements so that the most important ones are in front, or using color contrast to highlight particular elements.

Alternatively, you can look for ways to turn your trapped white space into negative space that actually makes your design work better. For example, if you have trapped white space in the corner of a design, look for ways to turn it into negative space that creates visual balance and draws the viewer’s attention to the desired area.

Use design software

Some design software programs — such as Adobe Illustrator — have features that allow you to easily eliminate trapped white space.

For example, use the “Align” tool to align elements and create more space or the “Pathfinder” tool to merge or divide shapes and create more design flexibility.

Using these tools can help you to make precise adjustments to the layout that remove unnecessary trapped white space.

Be creative

Sometimes, the best solution might be to throw tried-and-tested techniques out the window, go rogue, and come up with a creative solution to the problem.

This might involve using a different design approach or finding a new way to present the information.

For example, if you have trapped white space between two images, you could try using a creative frame or border to make the white space more visually appealing and to better integrate it into the overall design.

Be willing to try new ideas and experiment with different approaches to find a solution that works for your design.

How to prevent trapped white space in your graphic designs

Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes, so how can you avoid ending up with trapped white space in the first place? There are a few steps you can take to make sure you fill the canvas every time.

Plan ahead

Ever heard the expression, “Fail to plan, plan to fail?” It applies to design, too. Consider the layout and placement of all the elements you intend to use before starting the design process.

This can help you avoid trapped white space and make it easier to modify your design later on.

Use guides and grids

Guides and grids can help you create a balanced layout and ensure you align all elements in a way that’s both visually appealing and achieves the objective of the design.

Knowing what will go in each space of the grid can help prevent trapped white space from occurring.

Keep an eye on negative space

The most straightforward way to prevent trapped white space is to be mindful of the empty areas of your design as you create it.

Be just as aware of the negative space as you are of the other elements and use it to add emphasis in all the right places. This will help you ensure you don’t box it in and turn it into trapped white space.

Free the trapped white space for more impactful designs

As you build your design skills, working with white space will start to come more easily to you. Mastering design techniques — like the ones outlined in this article — will help you navigate avoidable pitfalls such as trapped white space.

If you’re an aspiring designer looking for more resources and tips on the technical aspects of graphic design, check out this article on how to create depth in graphic design.‌‌‌‌

Interested in the full package? Our 'Ultimate Guide to Using Space in Graphic Design' has you covered. From clear explanations to real-world examples, this is the one resource you'll need to take your understanding of space to the next level. Hit the button below to go right to it.