Horror Vacui

Your constantly-updated definition of Horror Vacui and collection of videos and articles

What is Horror Vacui?

Horror vacui refers to the inclination to fill every bit of space on a webpage or app with content. In user experience (UX) design, it can harm the overall user experience. Pages can be crammed with text, images, advertisements and other elements, with little or no negative space which often results in overly complex, cluttered compositions.

Image of a popular Chinese web page.

This is a popular landing page design in China—full of detail with little free space.

© Yuki Zhong, Fair Use

eBay’s landing page – a site with plenty of possibilities, yet balanced well with negative space.

© eBay, Fair Use

Horror Vacui in Art and Design History

Horror vacui is a term rooted in Latin. It means “horror of the void” or “fear of emptiness.” This fear of empty space has been a part of art and design for centuries. The concept of horror vacui comes from art history. Many historic art movements, including the Victorian, Georgian and Baroque periods, often filled canvases with intricate details. Consequently, many artists from those eras felt compelled to leave no space untouched.

Despite the potential to overwhelm, this tendency for complexity and detail was immensely popular in those times. If a client or patron could afford such detailed artwork, it signaled prestige. An ornate jam-packed artwork was a sign of both affluence and craftsmanship.

Image showing an ancient picture embodying horror vacui.

It’s all in the details; only some bits around the horses’ hooves have managed to “breathe” in The Fall of Babylon (1555).

(Public Domain)

The trend changed later. In modern art and design movements, such as minimalism, artists prioritized simplicity. Many pioneered an effective use of background or negative space in art. This shift shows the evolving perception of design aesthetics over time. Artists and art patrons were paying attention to elements in a different way.

What is Horror Vacui in UX Design?

Art is different from design. It’s a subject that sometimes causes confusion in the popular psyche of the real world. However, even for user interface (UI) design there’s a common misconception that empty space is a waste. The effective use of negative or white space is crucial for good design work. 

This is particularly the case for designers of user interfaces. When designers provide such space, they let their designs “breathe” and allow for better readability and comprehension. These are key parts of improving a website’s or app’s user navigation.

Designers who fall prey to horror vacui can end up with overly crowded and visually overwhelming interfaces. This can impair the user experience and harm a digital product’s or service’s chances to do well in the market due to:

1.   Reduced Readability and Comprehension

Overcrowded web pages and app screens can make it difficult for users to read and understand the information on show. That strain on the viewer’s eye can lead to reduced user engagement and potentially higher bounce rates. Users might become so distracted that they can’t even find essential tasks or information, let alone focus on them. In an era of mobile-first design where many users discard apps after just one use, it’s vital to design for the distracted user who has next to no patience.

2.   Poor Navigation 

If a designer clutters a screen with information, users may find it challenging to navigate and spot the information they need. They might even struggle to see what the actual subject of an image is. A designer might have inadvertently buried calls to action in the design elements of a cluttered website, for example. This will translate to a poor conversion rate. If the users become frustrated, they will leave sooner—very soon if they’re already in a frustrated, busy or even potentially hazardous environment.

3.   Reduced Aesthetics 

A cluttered site can be visually unappealing, which can negatively impact a user's perception of a brand. Without adequate space around the subject to set it off, it can’t draw attention to what is important for the brand message. Users like pretty things, and are quick to distrust a product design they can’t identify with. Even if what’s on show isn’t the best design, users can still find it more usable than it might be through the aesthetic usability effect.

CEO and Creative Director of Hype4, Michal Malewicz explains the aesthetic usability effect.

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4.   Outdated or Unprofessional Look 

Digital products that fall victim to horror vacui seem amateur or outdated. For example, users who can recall the early days of the internet from the 1990s may remember that “cluttered retro” feel that came across from many websites. Cluttered digital products that are stuffed with design elements can look cheap and unprofessional. For instance, even a slightly busy web design can be a turn-off for many users and potential customers.

5.   Information Overload

Users may simply become overwhelmed if they have too many elements. Cognitive overload will make them shut off in a few seconds. Even if they have time to spend on their desktop in a quiet environment, many will become frustrated if they need to find something. Many users will leave the site or app, regardless.

These are primary reasons to manage horror vacui appropriately. Visual designers have both challenges and opportunities to make the best of a digital environment where aesthetics and clear design are of high value. That’s why it’s important to fight the urge to fill every pixel on the screen. Users want helpful cues such as affordances and signifiers to aid them in their user journey. They do not want to find an excess of information, graphics and options for the product or service they simply want to use.

How Do Designers Manage Horror Vacui?

While horror vacui poses challenges, there are several strategies and best practices that designers can employ to manage it effectively:

●  Understand The Target Audience

User research is vital. Designers must understand the context of use, cultural context and preferences of the users they seek to help. What works for one group may not work for another. A thorough grasp of the users’ scenarios, as well as the users themselves, is therefore essential for any design project.

Author and human-computer interaction (HCI) expert Alan Dix explains the importance of understanding users and more in this video:

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●  Prioritize Content

Not all content is equally important. That’s why designers need to prioritize their content and highlight the most important information. It’s important that designers avoid the temptation to cram in too much information in areas like the information architecture of a digital design. Therefore, designers must ensure that users can readily access the most pertinent details without feeling overwhelmed from non-essential information.

●  Use a Good Visual Hierarchy

This hierarchy guides the user's eye in user experience design. It improves the experience as it facilitates easier information processing. When designers strategically employ the right visual elements, they can enhance the experience and prevent visual clutter. Use size, color, contrast and spacing to establish a strong visual hierarchy, that will guide users to the most important elements first.

E-commerce giant Amazon, which has a wealth of information to display, manages to keep its interface relatively clean. It uses hierarchy, categorization and a clear navigation system to present information in an organized and digestible manner.

© Amazon, Fair Use

●  Simplify the Interfaces

Remember the famous design principle, "Less is more." For general public releases, at least, a clean, simple design is nearly always far more effective than a complex one. It’s vital to keep interfaces simple and straightforward to manage and minimize horror vacui. Designers should therefore aim for clarity and ease of use by avoiding unnecessary elements. Be ruthlessly selective. This approach enhances the user's ability to navigate the interface and access information without feeling overwhelmed.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Aviator and writer

●  Implement Progressive Disclosure

Progressive disclosure means revealing information gradually as it becomes relevant. This is opposed to presenting all information upfront. Designers use progressive disclosure effectively this way when they prevent information overload. At the same time, it contributes to a clean and uncluttered interface throughout.

●  Embrace White Space

White space, or negative space, is a powerful tool in combating horror vacui. This space refers to the empty space in a design that surrounds different elements like text, images and buttons. It helps to create visual hierarchy, improve readability and guide the user's attention.

Contrary to what the term suggests, white space does not necessarily have to be white. It can be any color, texture, pattern or even a background image. The key is that a healthy balance of positive and negative space provides visual breathing room for the eyes. It’s also important in UX design as it can help guide users' eyes and attention to key elements on the page. Moreover, it can help achieve a balanced and harmonious design that is pleasing to the eye. A generous use of white space often is a sign of luxury and sophistication in the modern design aesthetic.

Apple’s interfaces feature plenty of white space, clean lines and a focus on core functionalities. This approach not only aids usability but also enhances the perceived value of their products.

© Apple, Fair Use

●  Consider the Advantages of Gestalt Principles and Grids

Designers have a strong ally in the form of the Gestalt principles. The law of proximity, for example, is a powerful one to leverage to simplify a web page and establish hierarchy.

Also, designers can explore the use of typography and grid systems to organize content and optimize the use of space within their designs. Every aspect of the elements they intend to include is something to consider and—if essential to the message of the design solution and brand—optimize for the user.

Author, designer and educator Mia Cinelli explains how the Gestalt principles are important in design.

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●  Leverage Hick’s Law

The time it takes users to make a decision depends on how many options a designer gives them. Keep the essential choices that are relevant to the design goal and highlight them on the main page. Non-essential ones can go on other pages via link buttons.

Google is another example of a brand that effectively manages horror vacui. Its search engine interface is incredibly sparse. There is a vast amount of white space. This simplicity lets users focus on their search without any distractions.

© Google, Fair Use

●  Balance Between Usability and Flexibility

The more a designer adapts the design to ensure more users can use it effectively, the greater the chances are that the design will swell to become a one-size-fits-all product. Although accessibility is vital (and often a mandatory consideration), it’s important to keep things streamlined, too.

●  Apply Occam’s Razor

Pick the simple over the complex with Occam’s razor—the principle that prefers simplicity to complexity. Designers shouldn’t use more elements unless doing so is vital.

●  Have an Easy Performance Load

Designers shouldn’t put “work” in front of users. For an intuitive design to be pleasurable and seamless, users need to have the luxury of neither working at it nor having to pause to wonder about it.

●  Leverage the 80/20 Rule

Also called Pareto’s Principle—80% of users use only 20% of the features a product typically has. Focus more on the vital elements and beware of the nice-to-haves.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

●  Use Chunking

Divide bigger pieces of content into smaller ones if possible. Designers who cater to their users this way make it easier for them to digest material, especially written content.

●  Test and Iterate

It’s essential to conduct usability testing with real users. As with UX research, testing is an important part of the design process. It’s also the only way for designers to understand how individual users interact with a design. Then, designers can gather and implement that user feedback. From there, they can refine and improve their designs to better address users' needs and preferences. In terms of horror vacui, they can get the optimal balance of negative and positive space per screen based on their findings.

Image showing four images of interior of buildings and a webpage.

The many aspects of detail—or lack of detail—at work.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

How do Horror Vacui and Space Work in Different Cultures?

The target users’ culture is an important consideration for negative space. Western cultures tend to associate clean, minimalist designs with sophistication. In some Eastern cultures, such as China, however, it’s different. A densely packed design is often a sign of wealth and abundance. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the cultural context of the user base.

Designers need to appreciate their users’ culture as well as the many contexts of use for their digital products in any case. These brands will be more likely to enjoy international success. They can design effective and appealing UIs that travel well in an international market.

Overall, horror vacui is more a historical anomaly to consider and minimize than a warning to scare designers away from including details on a page or screen. The goal is always to mirror the users’ needs and communicate the brand message. Designers should be mindful of the risks of horror vacui and how much detail to include. White space is not wasted space. “Nothing” is a handy tool here and applies to a wide range of possibilities in product design. The key to the enterprise with navigating horror vacui is good judgment and the careful application of a designer’s skill set. 

Learn More about Horror Vacui

Take our Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide course.

Read our Horror Vacui: The Fear of Emptiness piece.

Find some fascinating points and examples in Horror Vacui, the fear of white space by Rizwan Javaid.

Read Why It is Time To Start a Horror Vacui Design Trend by Sarmite Polakova for some captivating insights.

Check out the art history angle in “When More is Better: Horror Vacui in History” by Véronique Plesch.

Find more in-depth information in Design Principle: Horror Vacui (or, a “fear of white space”) by The Visual Communication Guy.

Read interesting insights in Breaking free from the fear of empty space in Design by Slava Polonski, PhD.

Questions related to Horror Vacui

Can horror vacui and minimalism coexist in a single design?

Horror vacui and minimalism can coexist in a single design, but their integration requires careful balance in the visual elements.

To combine these approaches, UX or UI designers can use zones or layers. For instance, one area of the screen might feature a dense, intricate pattern (horror vacui), while another maintains simplicity and open space (minimalism). This technique allows for a dynamic interplay between complexity and simplicity. It can create a unique visual experience. Still, it's important to maintain a harmonious balance to prevent one style from overpowering the other.

For actionable insights, designers should focus on the purpose of each element, ensuring that each addition serves a specific function or enhances the overall aesthetic. Experimenting with contrasting textures, colors and shapes can also help distinguish the different areas while maintaining a cohesive look.

Watch our How to Balance Complexity and Simplicity in UX Design Master Class with Morgane Peng, Design Director at Société Générale to explore the principles of balancing different design elements, crucial when combining horror vacui and minimalism.

How can designers effectively use horror vacui in UI design?

First, prioritize functionality. The UI should remain intuitive and easy to navigate, even with an abundance of visual elements. Designers can achieve this by focusing on clear visual hierarchies. They can ensure that important elements like call-to-action buttons or navigation links stand out amidst the detailed interface.

Second, use horror vacui to create focal points. By concentrating detailed designs in specific areas, professionals can guide users’ attention effectively. This technique can be particularly useful in areas less critical for functionality, like background patterns or decorative borders.

Third, implement responsive design principles. An interface rich in details can become overwhelming or lose its intended effect on different screen sizes. Designers should ensure that the horror vacui elements adapt gracefully across devices.

For actionable insights, consider the context and audience. Horror vacui can work well for creative, artistic or cultural websites, where users expect and appreciate visual richness. However, for applications requiring quick information retrieval or frequent user interactions, it’s crucial to balance these detailed elements with ample negative space.

Take our course The Ultimate Gide To Visual Perception and Design for further helpful insights.

How does the design community view horror vacui?

The design community views horror vacui with both fascination and caution. On one hand, designers appreciate horror vacui for its artistic richness and ability to convey a sense of abundance and detail. It's particularly admired in fields like illustration, graphic design and certain cultural or artistic contexts where an intricate and opulent aesthetic is desired.

On the other hand, in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design, clarity, usability and simplicity typically take precedence. A design overly filled with elements can be overwhelming for users, leading to confusion and decreased functionality. 

For actionable insights, designers interested in horror vacui should consider the context and purpose of their design. It's crucial to balance the intricate and detailed aspects of horror vacui with the needs and expectations of the target audience, including accessibility concerns. In contexts where user interaction and functionality are key, such as web design, a more restrained approach may be necessary.

Overall, designers can rely on a strong grasp of form follows function among other allies, such as UI design patterns, to help judge what’s best in their work.

Watch our video on UI Design Patterns for more insights:

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Which forums or platforms discuss horror vacui in design?

Forums and platforms discussing horror vacui in design often include online communities and websites dedicated to design, art, and architecture. Here are some recommended platforms:

Behance and Dribbble: These platforms showcase creative work, including projects that employ horror vacui. Designers often share their work and engage in discussions about their design choices.

Remember, the popularity and usage of these forums can vary, and active discussions on horror vacui might ebb and flow with trends and interest levels in the design community. Checking multiple platforms and participating in discussions can offer a broader understanding of how horror vacui is perceived and used in modern design.

Join our design community to stay up to date on horror vacui and other topics.

How do designers ensure accessibility in horror vacui designs?

Designers should focus on a few key principles, including:

Contrast and Legibility: These are vital for readability, especially for visually impaired users. Text and key elements must stand out against intricate backgrounds.

●  Hierarchy and Clarity: Despite the detail, include a clear hierarchy to guide users to important information or elements.

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●  Simple Interaction: Keep interactive elements like buttons straightforward for ease of use.

●  Consistent Navigation: Helps users navigate complex layouts, crucial for cognitive accessibility.

●  Alternative Text for Images: Provide descriptions for users relying on screen readers.

●  User Testing: Include diverse users, especially those with disabilities, to gather feedback for improvements.

Take our accessibility course to appreciate a wide range of considerations to include in UX design for users of all abilities.

What are some highly cited scientific sources about the subject of “horror vacui”?

Murphy, A. (2022). Perceived Usability of Online Library Resources Among First-Year Students. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://doi.org/10.17615/e867-c113

The study, conducted by Andrew Murphy at the UNC School of Information and Library Science, examines the usability of the UNC Libraries website by first-year students. Focused on students enrolled in the first-year writing courses ENGL 105 or 105i, the research utilized a mixed methods approach, incorporating both surveys and contextual interviews. The objective was to assess how these students perceive and experience the website's usability in the context of their coursework. The findings revealed that while students could complete their course-related tasks using the website, the overall perceived usability and user experience were not rated highly. This suggests a need for improvements in the website's design to enhance user satisfaction and effectiveness. “Horror vacui” receives mention.

Is horror vacui gaining popularity in modern design trends?

The digital realm, especially web and app design, has seen a blend of minimalism and horror vacui. Some designers are experimenting with intricate backgrounds or detailed illustrations while maintaining clean and simple interfaces. This demonstrates a shift towards more personalized and visually rich digital experiences.

For actionable insights, designers looking to incorporate horror vacui should always consider the context and audience. In luxury branding, for instance, this style can convey a sense of opulence and attention to detail. It's also important to balance intricate elements with functionality to ensure usability isn't compromised. In any case, it’s vital to ensure product designs are accessible, usable, aesthetically pleasing and geared around the users’ needs. For example, one consideration is how users with sight disabilities might misinterpret a “busy” design.

Learn more about accessible design in our Master Class with Vitaly Friedman, Senior UX Consultant, European Parliament, and creative lead, Smashing Magazine.

What are the psychological effects of "horror vacui" on users?

Users experiencing horror vacui may feel overwhelmed, confused, or distracted due to a cluttered or excessively busy design. This sensation arises because the human brain seeks order and simplicity to efficiently process visual information. When confronted with an overly complex or crowded design, users can find it difficult to focus on the main message or action desired by the design. This can lead to a decrease in usability and overall user satisfaction.

 In UI/UX design, designers can apply the principles of simplicity and negative space effectively to counteract horror vacui. This can enhance user engagement and comprehension. A well-structured layout with ample white space improves readability and allows users to easily navigate through content. That leads to a more pleasant and productive user experience. Designers can strategically use white space to guide the user's attention to key elements, reducing cognitive load and increasing the likelihood of users taking the desired action.

Take our Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide course to find out how to make effective designs.

Literature on Horror Vacui

Here’s the entire UX literature on Horror Vacui by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Horror Vacui

Take a deep dive into Horror Vacui with our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide .

In this course, you will gain a holistic understanding of visual design and increase your knowledge of visual principles, color theory, typography, grid systems and history. You’ll also learn why visual design is so important, how history influences the present, and practical applications to improve your own work. These insights will help you to achieve the best possible user experience.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn the difference between visual design elements and visual design principles. You’ll also learn how to effectively use visual design elements and principles by deconstructing several well-known designs. 

In the second lesson, you’ll learn about the science and importance of color. You’ll gain a better understanding of color modes, color schemes and color systems. You’ll also learn how to confidently use color by understanding its cultural symbolism and context of use. 

In the third lesson, you’ll learn best practices for designing with type and how to effectively use type for communication. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the anatomy of type, type classifications, type styles and typographic terms. You’ll also learn practical tips for selecting a typeface, when to mix typefaces and how to talk type with fellow designers. 

In the final lesson, you’ll learn about grid systems and their importance in providing structure within design. You’ll also learn about the types of grid systems and how to effectively use grids to improve your work.

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design Emeritus at RIT R. Roger Remington, author of “American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960”; Co-founder of The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and leading color consultant Joann Eckstut, co-authors of “What Is Color?” and “The Secret Language of Color”; Award-winning designer and educator Mia Cinelli, TEDx speaker of “The Power of Typography”; Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA Ellen Lupton, author of “Thinking with Type”; Chair of the Graphic + Interactive communication department at the Ringling School of Art and Design Kimberly Elam, author of "Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type.”

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can go right out and use what you learn in your everyday practice.

In the “Build Your Portfolio Project: Redesign,” you’ll find a series of fun exercises that build upon one another and cover the visual design topics discussed. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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