"Clutter" Should Not Be A Visual Word

How many times have you heard someone — probably a designer — say that something “looks cluttered”? How many times have you said it yourself? Well, I want to adjust the way you use that word so it is closer to the way “clutter” actually works in the mind of a user.


Whitespace is something that should be respected.

Any good designer knows that. It isn’t just “unused” space. It creates a feeling of “clean design” and “simplicity” and “organization”.

And following that logic, the best website would be blank. Wait… that can’t be right.

White space and content help each other. It’s not just the notes that make the music, it’s also the space between them.


What exactly is “clutter”?

Usability tests and eye-tracking show that a user’s need for content takes it out of the “clutter” category in their minds.

If they need it, it’s not clutter. It’s content.

However, websites with busy, or noisy layouts are also trusted less and get lower conversion because they add cognitive load (they’re harder to think about).

If your boss wants to include a bunch of useless shit, the user sees “clutter” and your boss blames you. 

Somewhere on the scale from “blank” to “Jackson Pollock” there is an ideal amount of “stuff” for any usable design.

“So… what is that amount”, you say?

Well, that’s the wrong question. What you should ask is, “how much content do users need?”


You can’t see a need.

As designers we usually have a big disadvantage when it comes to understanding the user: we don’t need what they need.

Unless you are currently in the market for buying a latex body suit, you don’t know what details are needed to decide which body suit is best (they’re all so great!). 

If you are in the market for a latex body suit (let’s be honest, who isn’t?), that can be even worse! You will design around your own needs, and not the needs of the crowd.

Other people may not want the ones with the trap door and the lighting system. Go figure.


Does it look cluttered?

As a UX designer, if you sit back to see if your wireframe “looks perfect” you’re still asking the wrong question.

Designers often look to see if the text has enough space, or if the typeface feels right, or if the picture feels big enough. And they fill it with lorem ipsum.

Try asking a real user if the lorem ipsum meets their needs, then snap a picture of their face and tape it to your monitor so you never forget how dumb that question was.

UX can’t look “good” or “cluttered” because you can’t see whether the user needs the content or not.

Therefore, “clutter” cannot be a visual word. It’s a cognitive word. To test cognitive stuff, you gotta ask somebody.

Do some user research to see what details form the decision. Also ask which details are most important. Use that research to include only the most important content, and make the high-priority stuff bigger.

A/B test it to confirm!

You might not end up with an oasis of whitespace, but if the users need all that info, then it’s not clutter. It’s content.