Mayan Web Design

In the visual arts there is a principle known as Horror Vacui that literally translates to a “fear of empty space”.

According to history, it was none other than Aristotle who first proposed the theory of Horror Vacui. Nature hates empty space, and so nature tries to fill that space with something, anything. The application of Aristotle’s theory in the visual arts has a longstanding tradition. Horror Vacui is used to describe the art of many cultures, including the Mayans. The Mayans would fill the surface area of their buildings and other creations with elaborate ornamentation. According to my art history professor (and a brochure I read while touring Mayan temples), this was presumably to keep the evil out. Nature hates empty space, so that’s where the evil would dwell.

We have had so many clients over the years that view their web sites with this same sense of Horror Vacui. They’re not afraid of demons getting in through the open space. No, they’re afraid that if they don’t use that half inch of space for something that they might be missing an opportunity to make a transaction. So, they stuff every square inch of their sites with stuff.

Make the logo bigger. Let’s put an ad here and an image there. Let’s put a bulleted list over there. And so on and so on and so on until you end up with a design that is so crammed with stuff that the viewer can’t clearly discern anything. All they see is the overall effect of the stuff. The details are all lost. The visitor’s capacity to take action and the client’s opportunity to make a transaction are severely diminished.

Think of the space on your site like the physical space around you. How do you feel when you’re crammed into a space and unable to move? If there were no space around you, how would you be able to see what was on the other side of the room? How would you get there?

Your eyes navigate visual space much like you navigate physical space. You have to have room to move through. You cannot effectively communicate without negative, or blank, space. It enables each of the elements that make up the web site to be seen. It allows the design and layout of the site to do the job of moving your visitor’s eyes from element to element in order of importance.

The truth is that empty space does not let the demons or missed opportunities in. The fear of empty space and the compulsion to fill that space creates the problem.

Aristotle observed and defined Horror Vacui around 2,300 years ago, just about the time the Mayan civilization was kicking into high gear. This principle is nothing new. The internet may be relatively new, but the principles still apply.

The moral of the post is this: “Trust your designer.” You need the empty space way more than you need whatever you are going to try to cram into it.

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