Gmail: What a Difference a Little White Space Makes

By  |  Friday, July 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Almost every week is a big week for Google news–but this one has been particularly jam-packed. There’s Google+, its pretty cool answer to Facebook. There’s the refreshed Google home page. There are rumors that it’s interested in buying Hulu.

But my favorite Google news of the week is an item that doesn’t sound all that explosive: it released a couple of new themes for Gmail. I’m using one of them now. All it does is to give Gmail a bit of the new look that’s also visible in Google+ and the revised home page. And that turns out to be a big deal.

I’ve written–probably too often–about my love/hate relationship with Gmail. The hate part mostly relates to the interface, which has long been so crowded with stuff–both important and annoying irrelevant–that using the service sometimes feels like reading a Where’s Waldo book.

The new themes only do so much. They don’t strip out the feature overload, or even more items around much. (They do, however, move the horizontal text ad from the top to the bottom.) Other than tweaks to the color scheme, the main thing that’s new is more white space. A lot of it–on my MacBook Air, I can see fourteen items in the inbox without scrolling, vs. 25 lines using the default look.

Here’s Google’s sample screenshot:

It makes a huge difference in readability and the ability to find items without any hide-and-seek. I can feel my eyeballs smiling every time I use it.

Anyone who’s ever worked at a magazine knows that white space makes things far more legible. (Or at least should: I  don’t know how many hours of my life as a magazine editor I spent listening to art people advocating for more white space, and writers arguing for more text.) Google surely knows that white space is important–its iconic home page is iconic in part because the company wisely chose to devote almost all of it to unoccupied space.

Google’s blog post on the themes says that “The changes are not going to happen all at once” and that they will “strip out unnecessary clutter.” I take that as meaning that the makeover won’t just be cosmetic–it will also involve reducing the sheer volume of fripperies that Gmail involves, or at least allowing us to turn them on and off. I can’t wait.


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16 Comments For This Post

  1. Madison McPheeters Says:

    I'm with Mike on the "this'll take some getting used to" part. Somehow, I feel a little directionally confused when I open my inbox. The new layout looks nice and airy, I just have to wrap my head around it!

  2. Muay Thai Says:

    It is all round better than Facebook, it's just that w are so used to Facebook that anything will look weird at this point.

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  3. Mike Cerm Says:

    Not really sold on the new look. I'm somewhere between, "this'll take some getting used to" and "wow, I totally hate it, and I'm going back to Thunderbird." I'll give it a week and see how I feel then…

    I'm very scared of what they might do to Google Reader. Sure, they've had the same interface for the last 5 years or so, and it could do with a little updating, but not if the changes just make it worse.

  4. nicholascontramundum Says:

    I love the new interface. Harry, have you noticed that when it is on, it is surprisingly zippier?

  5. Phillip Fayers Says:

    14 vs 25 items is exactly the problem. I don't need whitespace between lines to find my emails – but I do need to see them on screen. The new design means I can see a little more than half of what I could see before – a massive failure for me.

  6. nicholascontramundum Says:

    If you choose the dense theme, you can get the same amount as before.

  7. Lloyd Budd Says:

    I reverted almost immediately because of the grey background in the list for read items. The decrease in contrast from the current on blue background (default theme) bothers me.

  8. Pedro Says:

    Everyone talks these days about some design being "clean" and whatever, but sometimes I feel they are just 'going with the flow'. This new look is NOT clean, is just stripped. You want to see 'clean' look at Apple designs, they may have minimalism, but also have something to balance it, like a subtle gradient, or a tiny glass effect (overdone these days, though), or a transparency, or round corners; or at least cool animations that pleasantly surprise us and compensate for the otherwise lack of appeal. But these new looks have *nothing* of that, and give me a break, Gmail design was already clean/simple/whatever.

    This new look is so basic that it looks like some gmail version 0.01 alpha, there are no separators, elegant frames like the one in the list of emails that had a bar in the left panel according to the items you were looking (inbox, sent, etc). Now there's nothing, just things suspended in boring white and grey in a way that they appear they aren't there at all.

    It's just infantile! And people talked about Windows XP looks? well look at this one… too big buttons with small text inside (maybe good for touch devices, not my case), a big red compose button (?) and a big blue search button (??) what about coherency in the so called design and color scheme?
    Big things, with very few colors, is this made for eye disabled people or what?

    The information text on the top when you send an email is enourmous now, we previously had butons for the next, prev, FIRST and LAST pages of email; but now only next & prev, gone are the round corners around messages, instead having a thin square box around it in light grey… over a white background…. nice work. And finally that anoying ad bar at the bottom that doesn't go away.

    The thing that is really pissing me off is that they won't be just themes for long, as in optional, but the new "design" of Gmail.

    You want good skins in Gmail? 'Shiny', and 'Planets', now that's design.

  9. Pedro Says:

    Just to finnish it, when you see CGI artists animating some 3D cartoons, with the scenes flowing in their monitors, but still with no textures or lights just plain 'plastic' objects, would you call it "clean" and "better"? Would you like to see the movie like that instead? I thougth not.

    I'm sorry but if people think this look is much better, they still need to learn a lot about design.

    And no, I don't really mind the black bar

  10. Alan Ralph Says:

    I wasn't aware of the new themes – thanks for the heads-up!

    On a related matter, is it just me or has Facebook recently reduced the type size on their pages? I'm finding I'm having to squint sometime to read people's updates. It is particularly noticeable when compared to Google+ (I managed to get in yesterday!) Thoughts?

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  12. Dave Says:

    I don't see these new themes in my themes tab.

  13. Usability Says:

    Did you say "white space" or "waste space" I mean I would rather NOT have wasted space on a screen or UI ANYWHERE at any time. Like it or hate it, WHERE is the google-provided customization. After 10+ years one would think a user interface would be 100 times more customizable for the user, not just *barely* customizable.

  14. Alan Ralph Says:

    Uh, there's also a "Preview Dense" theme for those folks who don't want their e-mails spaced out so much. Just sayin'…

  15. John Says:

    On my screen, the new themes ad about an inch of ad space in "compose" view, and shrink the compose window. Has anybody else noticed the font for gmail ads getting larger and bolder too?
    Only George Orwell would agree that more room for ads = less clutter.

    No thanks. I'm back to Thunderbird if that goes through.

  16. ebpp Says:

    I don't really like all the red in the new design…the only reason Google switched to that design is to get more people to click on ads by making the navigation less prominent