Design Principle: Horror Vacui (or, a “fear of white space”)

Document design theories these days (whether from experts or novices) seem to have a running theme: keep it simple and keep it clean. Steve Jobs made a career out of this idea, literally living by the old adage coined by the master Leonardo Da Vinci: “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

When most people think about clarity in document design (and visual design in general), they often think that clean and simple is equivalent to lots of white space. And, for the most part they would be correct. But there is much more happening with white space than “simplicity” and “cleanliness.” In fact, white space (or emptiness) actually has a socio-cultural effect on us: the more white space there is, the more expensive we perceive it to be and vice versa.

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Volare Digital CaptureObviously, this needs some explanation. There is an old design theory called “horror vacui,” which, literally translated, is Latin for a fear of emptiness. Today, this principle applies to white space in design as well. Artists (like Adolf Wolfli and Jean Duvet, featured to the left) have used the concept for centuries to create a visually busy and dynamic effect. The idea with horror vacui is to fill as much as of the canvas as possible with stuff—pictures, colors, lines, shapes, and text. But during the Victorian Age (somewhere between the mid-1800s to the early 1900s), horror vacui was a term used to describe interior design—and it wasn’t a compliment! There was a growing concern in the field of interior design that there was just too much visual information happening to make it appealing.

Over the last century, there has been a gradual shift away from horror vacui to creating designs to be more simplistic. You can see this evolution in the last 50 years just by looking at two Coca Cola ads. One clearly uses horror vacui as a design aesthetic, the other employs simplicity and emptiness. As the times have changed, so, too have our perceptions about what emptiness means. In today’s times, the more companies like Coca Cola and Apple Corporation have embraced emptiness, the more we have become to associate emptiness with sophistication.

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 That doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t a value for employing horror vacui. According to authors Lidwell, Holden, and Butler (who wrote the book Universal Principles of Design), there is an inverse relationship between horror vacui and value perception. In other words, the busier a design, the cheaper we feel like the product is. Sometimes, clearly, cheap is good. Stores like Walmart and Family Dollar thrive on this concept. The busier such stores can make their interior look, the more affordable we will perceive their products. Conversely, the emptier a store looks, the more expensive we perceive the products. Look at the two image here. Clearly but strangely, one obviously says affordable to everyone and the other says “affordable to the affluent.”

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This design principle, perhaps amazingly, doesn’t just apply to stores. If you want to create a mailer or an advertisement for your small business, and your product or service is expensive and targeted toward educated and wealthy people, your design ought not to employ horror vacui; rather, it ought to be filled with white space. On the other hand, if you have a product that is meant to be sold to less affluent and possibly less educated market, you might consider making the design busier. This doesn’t mean it has to be bad design (and it shouldn’t!), but the design should fill up more space. Think about Black Friday ads and you’ll get the picture.

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