1 + 1 = 3: Explaining Busyness and Background Noise on Websites
“1 + 1 = 3 (or more)” is an important design phenomenon described by Josef Albers and Edward Tufte, among others. It basically says that two elements in close proximity cause a visible interaction:
Figure: Copyright Al Globus.
This interaction can result in perceiving information that is not there, and beside its negative since distracting and distorting impact on charts and graphics, it can also cause undesirable “busyness” and “background noise”, terms that e.g. Steve Krug likes to use when it comes to web design.
So “1 + 1 = 3” is one of the effects one wants to avoid when creating graphs or designing websites, and as a designer, one should always keep in mind basic information design principles. In this regard, Edward Tufte’s books mean invaluable resources, and I recommend reading the following excellent articles as well:
- Al Globus’ Principles of Information Display for Visualization Practitioners (German), and
- Waynes Smith’s Graphics and Web Design Based on Edward Tufte’s Principles (German).
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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.