1 + 1 = 3: Explaining Busyness and Background Noise on Websites
Post from January 18, 2007 (↻ June 1, 2020), filed under Art and Design.
This and many other posts are also available as a pretty, well-behaved ebook: On Web Development.
“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:
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 websites, to use Steve Krug’s language.
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:
- Al Globus on Principles of Information Display for Visualization Practitioners (German), and
- Waynes Smith on Graphics and Web Design Based on Edward Tufte’s Principles (German).
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment or a message.
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.
Have a look at the most popular posts, possibly including:
- Web Design: 15 Important Research Findings You Should Know
- QA: On Errors, and Why Paying for Errors Pays Off
Perhaps my most comprehensive book: The Web Development Glossary (2020). With explanations and definitions for literally thousands of terms from Web Development and related fields, building on Wikipedia as well as the MDN Web Docs.
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