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How to Eliminate Visual Clutter

I’ve spent my summer days taking on projects I’ve never done before, sitting in on client meetings, and researching terms like “office culture.” In other words, I am the current design intern at FORM.

As part student and part professional-in-training, I have become aware of habitual mistakes in web design. Visual clutter is one of these mistakes. As I’ve come to learn, avoiding visual clutter is achievable in three parts: by understanding what creates the clutter, eliminating the unnecessary, and allowing your design to remain clutter-free.

What is visual clutter?

No one likes to be overwhelmed. How often have you visited a site and left after a couple seconds because it was too confusing to navigate? Or the content was so outdated you didn't trust it? Or the overall tone gave you an uneasy feeling?

Excess or disorganized content can create visual clutter. This can result from things like “walls of text”, or overuse of photography and colors. To ensure visitors can navigate your site and connect with your content, visual designers aim to eliminate this clutter.

But why is visual clutter bad?

Your website design is your face to the world. It provides a means for people to clearly understand your mission. The key word here is clearly. The design of your site should guide your patrons to quickly and easily understand your organization. What specific tone does your nonprofit want to radiate? For example, vibrant colors paired with immersive photography exudes energy and positivity. In contrast, a limited color palette and black and white photography create a more serious tone. It is easy to confuse visitors if the visual tone of your site is not appropriate or the design is not clean.

According to a study released from Princeton University, when your environment is over-stimulated, your brain isn’t able to focus properly. In the same sense, visual clutter impedes communication. Too many visual elements can compete for attention; this is a problem when there is a limited amount of time to impress your visitors.

Further, visual clutter distracts your visitors from what’s important: your content. Good design drives where your visitors are looking, and what draws their attention. As my professors (and numerous experts in design) remind us, “Content is king.” Your content drives your website traffic and overall online presence. Of particular importance to nonprofits, your website communicates your organization’s impact and significance to potential donors, and helps direct patrons and beneficiaries to the content they need. Poor visual design can lead your visitors to misinterpret content, misunderstand your organization, and become lost in your site. Think of it this way: Your content is half of the conversation between you and your patrons, and visual design is the other half.

Creating a clean, organized and impactful design will win your patrons’ trust.

Visual clutter also negatively impacts your credibility. Earning the trust of patrons is imperative. If a patron doesn’t trust you to handle a donation responsibly because your website is confusing, misleading or unprofessional, you might lose that donation altogether. Creating a clean, organized and impactful design will win your patrons’ trust.

How to: Cluttered Mess to Well-Dressed

So you’re ready to provide feedback on your designer’s concepts for your website? Here are five things to keep in mind:

  1. Consider why each element is on the page. Good designers place each element with intention and purpose, both to maintain visual organization, and to call attention to your most important content. Ask, why is this here? Is adding a line between content necessary, or can it stand alone? Does the chosen photography enhance the content, or detract from it? Does my eye easily find the most important content? Prioritize your content by deciding what is most important, and work with your designer to ensure this hierarchy is represented visually.

  2. Copywriting isn’t novel writing. Resist the urge to overwrite. Be concise and as brief as possible. Too much copy can be overwhelming and lose a visitor’s attention. Visitors want to get in, read exactly what they’re looking for, and get out. (Did you know humans have an average attention span of eight seconds?!)

  3. Let things breathe. If your designer gives you a minimal look with large amounts of whitespace, resist the urge to fill it. Remember, your design has a reason for the placement of everything, including the white or “negative” space. White space is used to control the eye, allowing visitors to navigate easily through your site. The disciplined use of white space is critical for creating a professional and uncluttered visual tone, too.

  4. Less can be more. So, you now have a design that’s both beautiful and functional. But, the designer chose to use only the most meaningful of your awesome stacks of photos, and the most important calls to action. At this point, it is tempting to add more; more buttons, more photos, more links, more calls to action. This is how visual clutter can creep in. Resist the urge! Highlight your content by featuring only the best of the best.

  5. Remember why you’re doing this. When providing feedback to your designer, take a moment to reflect on why you are creating this site. What are you trying to communicate? What tone does the design exude? Does this tone align with your organization’s values and mission?

It can be easy to accidentally clutter your website design, so remember to trust your designer. Together, you can create a site that’s clear, concise and compelling.

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