Horror Vacui

A few days ago, I was reviewing screen mockups with a bunch of developers, and one of them said something along the lines of "screen five looks a bit empty. Do you think we could add some more stuff in there?"

This is something I hear a lot. People tend to dislike empty space. It's wasted! Can we put some kind of widget in there?

Let's talk about something completely different. I heard you bought a new shelf half a year ago, and it looked really cool and modern and nice?

Everybody loved your new shelf! But a few months later, it suddenly didn't look so cool and modern and nice anymore, for some reason, and people kind of just stopped complimenting you on your new shelf.

Weirdly, now that you think about it, the exact same thing happened to your flat. When you moved in, you thought it was sleek and nice and modern, but now it looks pretty cramped and stuffy.

Fear of Emptiness

There's a concept in visual art called horror vacui, or "fear of empty spaces." It's the natural tendency of humans to fill empty spaces with stuff. Your new shelf has some empty panels? Put something in there! Your flat has an empty corner? Buy a chair! Or a plant! Something! Anything!

Humans have the same tendency when it comes to visual design. No empty space! Your screen has a few white pixels? What feature can we put there! Quick! Find something we can put there!

There's a problem with that, though. Empty space is not useless.

Value Perception

Empty space creates value perception. Universal Principles of Design cites shop windows as an example:

In a survey of more than 100 clothing stores that display merchandise in shop windows, the degree to which the shop windows were filled with mannequins, clothes, price tags, and signage was inversely related to the average price of the clothing and brand prestige of the store.

Emptiness equates to prestige.

A single corner of an average PC laptop1 typically has more visual details — air vents, buttons, stickers, textures, colored ports, bezels — than a whole MacBook.

This is part of a Windows laptop:

This is a whole MacBook Pro:

Which one do you think costs more?

This doesn't just apply to shop windows, shelves, and laptops. It extends to software. You can immediately identify which of these two websites sells cheap stuff, and which sells expensive stuff.

Putting more stuff on your screens decreases your users' perceived value of your software.


There are other issues with overcrowded user interfaces, of course. An important one is usability. Every needless widget you put on the screen distracts the user from the thing she should be doing.

Don't be a victim of horror vacui. If you want your software to be perceived as valuable, don't fill every empty corner with some kind of feature or widget. Keep your designs clean, and don't add stuff just to fill empty space. Remove features if you have to.

  1. That's not to say that there aren't any well-designed Windows laptops, because there are↩︎

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But wait, there's more!

Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.