Designing A Gap



Written by Russell Shaw

Published on May 14, 2013

Last Edited on June 06, 2014



In marketing, the current trend of discussion lies around the idea of creating a conversation. Largely this has become synonymous with leveraging “social” in order to build a one-to-one connection between company and consumer. In design, the idea of creating conversation has been a goal for a much longer period of time than the existence of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.


Some see graphic design as a form of art. I personally am not certain whether or not I am a part of that camp. What I do know is that graphic design is communication – it is a visual vehicle for messaging. There is a difference between communicating and conversing. A communicator blasts out a message and hopes that it connects. In smaller groups that same message might gain higher retention due to being relayed through conversation. You forget some of what was said by a speaker at a conference. You do not forget the things your friends tell you over dinner.

In the same way, design that simply blasts out a message may be effective in some situations, but design that relays the message and then creates a conversation becomes powerful. But how does a designer create a conversation with a viewer? Isn’t the point of design that it exists as something to be viewed, rather than something that the designer stands beside and explains?

Powerful design creates an inner-dialogue in the viewer – a conversation that happens in the viewer’s mind about how she perceives the design which she is viewing. If a designer can create something which the viewer stops and works out, processes, questions, wrestles with, or solves on her own, then the design has become something that the viewer has internalized and is less likely to forget.

One of the best ways that I believe this can be done is to create a gap in the design. What this means is that a design has incomplete notion that a viewer fills in with her own mind. It’s the idea of being so in sync with someone that you “finish each other’s ________”. Gap design leaves room for the viewer to participate – and as soon as they are stopping and seeking to answer a question that the design asks, that inner conversation becomes very real.

Anytime you’re forced to say an idea out loud in your mind, you’re engaging in conversation with a design. It’s why we find MC Escher inviting – our eyes move around the page to infinity as we ask the question “Where is this going?” Or even in icons and pictograms, the language that our minds have to assign to the symbol represented – that Glaser’s famed “I [heart] NY” design forces the viewer to answer the ideograph with the word “love” as she reads it to herself. Maybe it’s why in product placement the modern model is often faceless – we want to see him or her and superimpose ourselves upon them. All this becomes even more important in interaction design when a user’s choices are a part of how the framework of the interface works; she must assign meaning in her mind to the buttons, icons, and possible options in order to function – therefore, creating design that allows her to understand these actions and consequences through visual cues connects her to the design as she operates through it.

Richard Minsky has noted that late 19th century book designers – prompted initially by a need to create artwork with as few plates as possible – created and embraced the idea of silhouettes in design. “The outline of an object,” Minsky writes, “is all we usually need to identify it. With a simplified image that eliminates color, shading, and interior detail, the mind not only recognizes the pattern quickly, but often our imagination inserts missing elements. Studies in perceptual physiology suggest that there may be an additional factor that makes these images enjoyable. The chemistry of cognition rewards the pleasure center of the brain when a pattern is identified, as when solving a puzzle.” [emphasis added]

As we face increasingly more educated consumers, the push the designer must give to get the conversation going is becoming more subtle. Good design conveys a message completely so that a viewer sees it, understands it, and then can go on her own way. But if the designer gives enough information to guide the viewer’s line of thinking to the desired message, yet allowing her to draw some of the conclusions herself, she will internalize the message by having become a part of it.

Powerful design, then, sets up a system of parameters to guide the viewer to answers, but allows for a gap in which the viewer is able to find the answers for herself. It is jazz. It begins the melody, but openly invites others in for experimentation and exploration too. Or, as Frank Chimero has aptly written in his book, The Shape Of Design:

“Designers should do the same with the frameworks they produce. They should begin by setting good restrictions that act as suggestions, but then step out of the way to see where the audience takes those purposeful limitations … Again, the solution is for the designer to sway responsively to the shifting context of the work with the contributions of the audience. The key is to understand when to surrender control and let the audience drive, and when to exert authority to focus everyone’s effort to ensure a more meaningful outcome. A gentle touch, more often than not, is all that’s needed to guide things in the right direction.”



Powerful design creates an inner-dialogue in the viewer.