Simplicity, Part 4: White space

From the Facebook and blog comments on the last post, I have drawn 2 names to give away the copies of Celebration of Discipline. If your name came up, I’ll send you a message!


In ten days, Jarod and I will celebrate our ten-year anniversary.

Ten years. We were married April 29, 2006.

And a lot has happened: Four cities, four apartments. One house. Two cats. One child. A dozen jobs. Six degrees.

Vacations in that time have been pretty sporadic! But we took a megabus to Montreal, did Vancouver on Aeroplan miles, and honeymooned in Florence, Italy.

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Vancouver – including Stumptown cold-brew coffee at Meat + Bread!

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Florence, Italy

For us, vacations always involve

  1. good food
  2. lots of walking and
  3. seeing museums, art and design from that city

#3 was sort of accidental. From our first vacation in Florence, we knew we liked art and walking. And when we look for things to enjoy, these are always part of it.

Living in Hamilton, Ontario meant we saw a lot of art. Having James Street North and the local “Art Crawl” each month was awesome! The Hamilton Art Gallery also had free Fridays.

And we’ve introduced the tiniest Broughton to the Art Gallery of Algoma too:

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Another story: When I was studying heart ultrasound, the material was intense! I would pack my brain full for hours in class. When it was time for lunch, I would often go to the computer lab. And just look at design sites for a half hour. Mostly decor or architecture. It became a quiet break in my day.

At first I was embarrassed.

Like design was a weakness. Like visuals didn’t matter. After all, they weren’t immediately useful.

And if I care about anything, it’s working hard and doing useful things.

I thought I should be spending all my time otherwise: studying, talking, strategizing.  Praying, working out, planning.

I thought: I may become frivolous or ridiculous for caring about visuals.

I also realized I wasn’t an artist. And so, I thought, better to leave that stuff to the really talented people… than to try it myself and muck it up.

After all, it’s just appearances. (Or so I thought. I was wrong).

But I knew I needed a break.

So I looked at images and diagrams. I saw incredible apartment tours, learned how high to hang art. I viewed futuristic buildings and read countless DIYs.

I even started to try some things out: leatherworking (huge thanks to the helpful staff at Tundra Leather!) hanging curtains and even Steampunk costuming DIYs


Here I was a guest at a Steampunk-themed wedding

Ok, so… what does this all this “extra stuff” have to do with simplicity? Isn’t it just cluttering up your life with more stuff?

That was my fear. That by looking at art and design, I would be complicating my life.


But I found the exact opposite.

I learned about focal points, scale and more. Especially the importance of leaving white space.


Don’t let too much compete for your attention. Leave some room.

Without it, even the most beautiful items will seem like clutter.


I learned when you hang pictures, you need to leave some walls blank. And you need to leave some space around the pictures.


And as I viewed photos, visited galleries and trained my eye (while still remaining quite the amateur!)

The more I understood the importance of white space.



Don’t let too much compete for your attention. Leave some room.

Without it, even the most beautiful items will seem like clutter.


(“White Space” is also the theme for an upcoming graphic design grad show at Sault College! It’s a pretty important principle, I learned).


And as I understood that visually…

I also understood it with my schedule.


That I needed to leave empty nights every week, to accept invitations, to unwind on the couch, to spend with family and friends.

To make space in my day. That instead of scheduling one-hour meetings at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.? To leave some space in between.

That it was OK and even wise. That productivity was not the #1 goal of every waking moment.


Man, I struggled with that.


But I learned that if I could just barely make an appointment – it was often better to reschedule, instead of being late or arriving unprepared.

To cram my schedule full… was to devalue everything and everyone in that schedule.

To rush my day… was to disrespect everything in that day.

To leave early/arrive right on time… was inflexible and unforgiving.

I didn’t learn this quickly.


I disappointed many people.

I thought I could do more than I could.

I handed things in late, missed deadlines, bit off more than I could chew. I rushed to meetings right after my commuter train arrived back in town.

But I began to learn.


I was shown by others how they made space. Like how they protected their Saturday as a day off – even refusing to schedule any church events on Saturdays so the congregation would have a consistent day off – and I was grateful to learn from that principle.


So I began to leave white space in my schedule.

I started to listen and learn. To not let too much compete for my attention. Leave some room.

Without it, even the most beautiful opportunities will seem like clutter.

I spent a summer intentionally slowing down.

I volunteered – once or twice a week, no more. I worked – but not every day.

I wasn’t in a rush. I slowly learned to be more present. To leave time. To give people and events value and significance – by paying more attention.


But I hadn’t yet translated the “white space” principle to the things I owned.

There’s a style called minimalism that loves space for its own sake.

In architecture, that means the lines and simplicity have a lot of value. As a lifestyle, it can mean that by owning as few things as possible, you leave room for other things. As an aesthetic, it can mean stripping everything away that you don’t enjoy. Sometimes that means a restricted color palette, an aversion to ornaments, or paying a lot of attention to light, texture or shape.

Sometimes, though, the style of minimalism can be cold or austere. It can veer too far into blank space as the priority. Some minimalists endlessly catalog their items, or live in impractically bare spaces. Sometimes it works for a particular life stage or city, but not in all contexts.

And if you like the aesthetic of minimalism, that’s great. I don’t particularly.

But I’ve learned that leaving white space gives what I do own more value.

The goal isn’t just to have less stuff. The goal is to value what you do have. Because it’s not crowded out by the unimportant.

Don’t let too much compete for your attention. Leave some room.

Without it, even your favorite stuff will seem like clutter.


Like the other areas, I’m learning here. I tend to keep too much. I tend to try and cram too much into one space. But here’s a few things I remind myself all the time:

If I value white space…

  • I probably don’t need to organize. I probably just need to get rid of stuff.
    • My kitchen needs work – but it still looks pretty good when the counters are clean! I don’t really need better kitchen organizers. I need to put the things on the counter away!
    • I have an overflowing drawer of workout clothes. It’s not well-organized. But since it’s overflowing, it never will be. If I donate 1/4 of the items in there, I can guarantee the drawer will be better organized – and I’ll make better use of what I have.
    • I have ten hooks on the side of my closet for necklaces. And I own 11 or 12 necklaces. I only wear about 6 of them. Do I need more hooks? Nope. I need to get rid of some necklaces – and leave a couple empty hooks!
  • I can bring new things home – without them turning into clutter.
    • All of our board games live in one cupboard above the fridge. If there’s no space for a new game, we don’t buy a new game. But if pre-emptively make some space, and only keep the games we really enjoy? Then a new game will fit in no problem!
    • If I leave 50% white space on my bookshelf? Then my library books have a place to go.
    • If I leave an empty shelf in the cupboard? Then I can bring home that great deal on cereal or chips. (Probably chips).
  • I can buy less – but exactly what is needed
    • After 10 years, our towels were pretty shredded. Fraying, holes, weird shrinking. And most were way too big, heavy and a pain to wash and dry.
    • If money was the primary value, we could have kept using them for a little longer. But we valued the space – and the simplicity of only having one type.
    • To replace them, we bought inexpensive all-white towels. Thin on purpose so they wash + dry quickly. White: easily bleached, easily replaced. And we only needed a fraction of the number to accomplish the same job.
  • I am more likely to get rid of old valuables.
    • The “sunk cost” fallacy means we like getting our money’s worth. Even if we don’t like what we have. This is why we keep eating a meal we don’t enjoy, keep a car that gets terrible gas mileage, or even persist in old friendships that have turned sour. Even if we’d enjoy life more without those things.
    • Once we put time and effort into something, we don’t want to let it go. But since I began to value white space, I find it easier to say goodbye to old valuables.
    • A month ago it was some Steampunk costumes. They kept taking up space in my closet – but I hadn’t worn them in years.
    • A day ago it was a few packages of clay and sculpting tools. I let them go.
    • I have a bookcase that I put a lot of work into refinishing. A friend bought a house full of old furniture, and while clearing out the house gave me the bookcase. It was covered in paint that I stripped off. After re-staining and re-building it, it’s beautiful.
    • But its size and shape is impractical – even small paperback books have to cram in there with no extra space. The glass is super-breakable (not safety glass) and it takes up tons of room. This bookcase has a huge sunk cost in time and effort… but I need to let it go. (Anyone want to buy a bookcase? haha).
  • I tend to go for useful or consumable gifts + experiences
    • The first vacation souvenir Jarod and I bought? Dice for one of our games. We looked at a lot of paintings, clothing, postcards and more. But we eventually decided it was great to have a useful souvenir! And that was a great choice.
    • Nowadays, I usually choose items like candles or food – things that we will enjoy, but will not need to be endlessly stored. This keeps our lives simple, and doesn’t fill in all our space.
  • I am open to possibilities, without having to make trade-offs.
    • Like an open schedule, open floor space in my house or an empty shelf is possibility.
    • If everything in my life is crammed to the rafters, it’s hard to fit in more.
    • But when I pre-emptively make space – that’s always potential.

What do you think? Does the term “white space” make sense to you? Do you naturally leave white space in your life and your house? Or is it something you’ve had to learn? Is there somewhere you need to let a “sunk cost” go?

I’d love to hear.


post 11 - white space


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