I often find it difficult to get into a deep focus. I feel that I'm constantly aware of my surroundings. I notice what happens in the room around me. I notice when people enter or leave. I notice the changes in the tones of conversations in the room and I can pick up on the emotions in the different groups. When I try to sleep, my awareness of the sounds around me, my temperature, and most of all my thoughts, increases. There are so many events around us competing for our attention and distracting our focus.
I'm a fairly frequent traveller. When I travel by aeroplane, I find it difficult to sleep. I'm nearing 200 cm tall (about 6"4'), so I don't fit in the seats. The head supports are too low, hunching my shoulders forwards, and my knees have to slot into the gaps between the seats in front. Thankfully, I've yet to sit next to a fellow long-shank and fight for those precious knee gaps. With all these distractions and constraints, it's no surprise that I can't sleep.
I have managed to sleep on flights on two occasions. Both have been due to the very rare business class upgrade on long flights from the UK to Japan, China, or Australia. I can mute the surroundings with earplugs and an eye mask. Most importantly, I can completely stretch out. I have space.
If you can create visual, auditory, and physical space in which you can focus on a task and become isolated from all the external distractions, it is easy to imagine the increase in productivity. The Four Seasons were right; Silence is Golden. There is something in nothing.
The same principles apply to the design of the products, interfaces and workflows we use every day.
In visual design, whitespace is a great example. It's tempting to think that all available space must be used to present information and that unused space is wasted or costly. Intentionally leaving space can actually afford clarity and give design elements room to breathe. You can reduce the effort required by the user to understand and navigate the content. It certainly can give you something for nothing.
In his book 'The Laws of Simplicity', John Maeda recalls a visit to the house of his friend. They ate sushi from white plates on a white table on a room where all the walls, floors and furniture were also white. The lack of colour or inspiration from the other elements in the room let the colours in the sushi appear much more vivid and interesting than usual and made the taste much more intense and detailed. He suggests this is due to the lack of any other colours, shapes or details competing for his attention. Again, getting something from nothing.
I originally chose a style for this site that used large images and a parallax scrolling effect. It looked impressive but it was slow to load and the useful content felt secondary. This is a place for me to express my thoughts and for people to get to know me. The goal is clear communication. What you see now is a result of stripping away all clutter and unnecessary decoration. It makes better use of whitespace and has clearer typography allowing my thoughts to be easily consumed. There are no images or colours as part of the site's structure but I may use images as tools for clearer expression in the content. Because I've removed all clutter and ornamentation, to use John Maeda's metaphor, the content tastes better.
I recently bought iA Writer. I find it creates a very productive writing environment where anything that is not essential to the process of writing is removed. You are not tempted to alter styles or layout. There are no toolbars, buttons or other bits of chrome to subconsciously process. There is only your text rendered in a readable font. Regardless of the size of your display, the text doesn't even extend to its left and right extents; it's purposefully restricted to display a maximum of 65 characters per line. That's following rules of good typography and makes reading very natural. I think it's a great example of intentionally leaving functionality out to create something more useful for its intended purpose.
It's tempting to use all the colours, sizes, styles and space available to create something rich and vibrant. Great restraint is needed to avoid this. When in doubt, don't add. Take away if possible. And realise that nothing can be a useful tool.
Nothing is indeed something.