Good strategy needs the white stuff

The Artful Strategist discovers white space with the help of Irving Berlin and Robert Frost.

You must have noticed the amount of colour imagery that makes its way into our calendars as we head towards the Winter Solstice. It starts in November with Black Friday, the official kick-off of the post-Thanksgiving season of shopping and good-deals-to-all men, and followed six weeks later by Blue Monday when our flagging spirits are devastated by the arrival of prolific credit card bills and the prospect of living on skint rations. But in the middle of this shop-to-stop cycle is the enticing promise of a warmly opaque holiday pause that thanks to Irving Berlin we all know as a White Christmas.

Berlin’s song White Christmas is not just the biggest holiday song, it is also one of the greatest songs of all time. Holding the presumably un-beatable Guinness Record for being the biggest selling single disc, White Christmas is the definitive festive anthem that touches our emotions and transports us back to the re-assuring warmth of Christmases Past. But when Berlin first wrote the song, it had an intro that never made it into the recordings we recognise today.

This is the ‘lost intro’ of White Christmas:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day

in Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth,

And I am longing to be up North.

 

Somehow a lush and balmy Southern California just provided the wrong frame of reference for the initial launch of the song. Shortly afterwards in 1942, with the United States at war, Bing Crosby’s intimate crooning about jingling sleigh bells and glistening treetops in Norman Rockwellian white spaces proved to be a brilliant morale building way in which soldiers on active service could re-connect with home.

White space of course is a very fashionable concept today and much sought after by wannabe disrupters and new model entrepreneurs of all kinds, who like to use the phrase as a shortcut for areas of uncontested opportunity in the lands of the unknown Unknown. With flat market places and margins zapped by competitors from all directions, today’s scramble for white space appears both urgent and haphazard.

Back in the 1940s, at roughly the same time that Bing was hogging the holiday airwaves, white space was a phrase that was just beginning to gain acceptance in the niche world of printing. Printers define white space as those parts of a page left unmarked: margins, gutters, and the space between columns, graphics or objects drawn or depicted. The idea of white space is universally considered to be a good thing as too much type crammed into too little space will result in poor reader experience. Advertising art directors like plenty of space because it can give their layouts a premium and elegant appearance. But white space is not just about aesthetics, it’s also an important means of creating emphasis and revealing the meaning of a text; in this way, blank areas should not be thought as inert but rather an active part of the story.

Which is why poets love the idea white of space.

Consider the following text and if you can do so without causing a stir, try and read it aloud:

The way a crow shook down on me the dust of snow from a hemlock tree has given my heart a change of mood and saved some part of a day I had rued.

This text is in fact a wonderfully compact poem consisting of one sentence of thirty-four words called Dust of Snow written by Robert Frost and published in 1923 in his collection New Hampshire.

Here is the actual layout Frost used in the published version and please look out for how the poet uses a combination of hard line breaks and a hinterland of white to set a rhythm and reveal his purpose:

Dust of Snow

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

Frost loved featuring wintry themes in his poetry, much of which was inspired by the same New England landscapes that feature in Berlin’s holiday songs. But while Dust of Snow is darker than White Christmas – after all there are no sleigh bells and children playing in Frost’s poem, only the menace of a crow in a hemlock tree – the crow did actually work his magic on the poet, just as much as Bing’s crooning did on the GIs away from home. Both show – albeit in very different ways- the functional and emotional effects of finding white space and the well-being benefits it can confer.

My trusty thesaurus tells me that white space belongs in the same Club as allowance, gap, headroom, and margin which are all relevant concepts today. In these turbulent times those who are faced with tough choices and scarce resources will find a keen appreciation of white space is mindfully bang on the money.

So after all your alarums and excursions of the year, God rest ye, gentle reader, shake off that dust of snow, and may your days be merry and bright, and may your Christmas space be white.

 

 

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