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Don’t be scared of the horror vacui

There’s often a dialogue between designers and clients about empty space, white space. It’s invariably along the lines of the client wanting to cram more copy and a bigger logo in a space, and the designer preciously protecting it at all costs.

The benefits of white space is well known and common practice for good designers. The deeper psychological impacts of it however are slightly more veiled.

Horror vacui is a latin phrase meaning the fear of empty space. The term is associated with the Italian scholar and art critic Mario Praz, who used it to describe the suffocating atmosphere of Victorian interior design.

Research suggests that there is an inverse relationship between horror vacui and the perception of value*1. The theory goes that poorer, less educated people are attracted to horror vacui (full spaces), whereas rich consumers get used to having lots so therefore expect less.

This understanding is often applied to the design and layout of shops and visual merchandising. Simply put, as the number of items on display decreases, the perceived value of them increases. This can be clearly seen when you look at two fashion stores. Primarkpiles their shelves using every meter of their floorspace, whereas Berlin’s Four store concentrates on clean lines and white space. It’s clear which one sells the higher price fashion.

An incentive for value driven shops to show an abundance of products is because their business model requires them to sell higher volumes at cheaper prices.  As a result, showing more products covers the shops’s product range.

It’s not just true for shop interiors either: Research suggests that applying the theory to window displays is beneficial for stores that wish to appeal to more affluent consumers.

Does displaying less (which requires constraint) give the impression of curation? And does curation imply education, knowledge and/or taste? It’s well worth considering when you look at your your own company’s visuals. Don’t be scared of empty spaces.