Jens Oliver Meiert

1 + 1 = 3: Explaining Busyness and Background Noise on Websites

Post from January 18, 2007 (↻ July 4, 2015), reflecting Jens the , or perhaps .

This and many other posts are also available as a pretty, well-behaved e-book: On Web Development (announcement).

“1 + 1 = 3 (or more)” is an important design effect described by Josef Albers and Edward Tufte. It means that two elements in close proximity cause a visible interaction:

Two parallel bars that appear to create a third element.

Figure: 1 + 1 = 3. (Copyright Al Globus.)

This interaction can result in perceiving information that is not there. Beside having a negative since distracting and distorting impact on charts and graphics it can also cause undesirable “busyness” and “background noise” on web sites, to use language from Steve Krug.

Hence, “1 + 1 = 3” is one of the effects one wants to avoid, at least be aware of, when creating graphs and designing websites. Of course, as a designer one should always keep in mind basic information design principles. Edward Tufte’s books mean invaluable resources in this regard, and I recommend reading the following excellent articles too:

About the Author

Jens Oliver Meiert, photo of June 20, 2015.

Jens Oliver Meiert is a German author, philosopher, adventurer, artist, and developer. Here on he shares—and occasionally generalizes and exaggerates—some of his thoughts and experiences.

If you have any questions or concerns about what he writes, ask him to explain, or share your own position by sending a constructive comment or email. (Then, if you think something could be of interest to Jens, recommendations for excellent literature are always welcome.)

Comments (Closed)

  1. On December 2, 2008, 14:51 CET, Richard Morton said:

    It seems obvious when shown visually like that, and it is something that is used quite deliberately in personalising car number plates (registration plates).
    I assume that the problem is also made worse by the fact that people skim read so much of the web these days, so unless it is obviously two separate elements confusion can easily arise.

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“To change the world for the better, you must begin by changing your own life.”