Historically, space has been applied using a grid so that elements can appear aligned in regular intervals. In more modern times, space has been tokenized into units related to a grid. Some systems will describe space using a T-shirt sizing technique to abstract some of the value from the name. Other systems are more verbose by naming tokens in direct relation to the space they aim to provide. These approaches maintain designer expectations; a large spacing token expects a large amount of space.

The challenge which these approaches are the lack of semantics which is supported in other token categories such as color and typography. As an example, a T-shirt sizing approach makes it impossible to meaningfully inject a size between small and medium. On the other hand, a more verbose style of encoding names and values defeats the purpose of variables altogether; only providing a standardized naming convention in either case.


Space is created by the relationship between two subjects, so the key is encoding the meaning of this relationship as a token; not an amount. This requires a different communication style for designers that have been gaining traction with the introduction of color and typographic semantic tokens. In these categories, designers are learning to describe intention over application; implicit design over explicit. For color, we apply a token for error text by identifying it as error text or, more abstractly, an accessible foreground color relating to another (background) color meant to provide feedback in a critical state. For space, this requires communication of relationship instead of size through the token naming convention. Complementary Space suggests how this could be achieved through a limited set of tokens and density shifting depending on context.