The Value of White Space

French composer, Achille-Claude Debussy is often credited with: “music is the space between the notes.” I am reminded that white space, like silence between notes, is an integral ingredient in a successful courtroom presentation. Further, in design, white space is as vital as the shapes and content within it.

Accomplished trial attorneys, like sophisticated musicians, elite athletes and disciplined scientists, understand the value of what we visual communicators call “white space.”  

There is an abundance of symbolic similarity between “space between the notes,” and the work of courtroom communications. Anyone who works to master something that takes dedicated practice, and “time served” in the form of years at it, is at home with the idea of micro-breaks, those deliberate “off-button” moments when one draws a breath and exhales a sigh of relief at progress and reward.

Whatever you call it, elite teams and high-performing attorneys recognize its fortifying effects and necessity. Standing in front of the judge or the jury or your client or your colleague, often carries the burden of greatness expectation amidst interruptions, unique circumstances and daunting formality. Timing in those moments and the ones leading up to them, can be everything.

Granted, the concept of white space in design might be foreign to the trial attorney who remains pressured to display everything potentially key to winning their argument in court. Making the jump from literal white space may be too esoteric to have impact. Still, it could benefit trial team warriors to read about and draw connections to the concept as courts increasingly request copies of the slides that accompanied oral arguments. This thought alone might save an attorney from filling every available inch of real estate on those visuals with cites and bullet points so dense that the points fall on blind eyes and deaf ears.  

It is easy to accept that proper “breaks” result in better performance. But what does this actually mean in the real world of trial? It means that one must find their own white space, that elusive, counter-intuitive concept of taking a break at the right moments along the way to a demanding moment of completion — figuratively (creating breathing room) and literally (arranging the information on each slide or page with an eye toward a sophisticated, pleasing esthetic).

A perfect example of this happened to me recently after 2 weeks in a war room set up in an AmLaw 100 firm in the heart of LA… It has long delighted me, at unpredictable, quiet after-hours moments during trial, when only the trial team is present in various degrees of alertness, when I’ve taken notice of captivating art adorning the walls of our client law firms. Under the pressure of Closing argument prep, and after making the same mistake multiple times, I stood and announced that I needed to take a walk at a time that likely appeared inconvenient. The space I created allowed for a fresh return that fueled the last bit of energy required to call the presentation “done,” “complete,” “finished,” “ready-for-primetime,” you get the picture. This is not to say there weren’t further tweaks to be made first thing in the morning before the ultimate, impressive delivery, but that is a topic for an upcoming post (stay tuned).

As someone who also considers herself a fine artist, I am humored that it has taken me so many years (and even more trials), to realize the role that fine art played for me in this regard. During that walk, taking in those playful, daring art pieces (big law often boasts of big art) that had guided me around the floor during other breaks in the previous two weeks, I sighed, recognizing a glaring example of the “space between the notes.” How lucky that they provided me the white space I needed to draw a breath, fortifying me with that resulting umph, a buoyancy that made the Closing come together with the exact right amount of precision, energy and collective force.

The breath, the regrouping, the “responsible rest,” that those impromptu breaks inspire and provide, are noteworthy. It has played such an important role in our work at Suann Ingle Associates that it has inspired “responsible rest,” as a core value.