Horror Vacui! Reevaluating Empty Design Space

One method to increase the perceived value of your product is to reduce visual pieces of information, or chunks, on your package.

Horror vacui is a Latin term that means the fear of empty spaces. It’s a centuries-old concept used primarily in art and design.
Horror vacui is a Latin term that means the fear of empty spaces. It’s a centuries-old concept used primarily in art and design.

At breakfast the other day, I happened to notice two strawberry jelly containers on my table. Both featured a red-checked design, but really, that was where the similarities ended. The kids’ squeezable jelly, in its top-to-bottom red design, had very little empty space on it. What wasn’t filled with text, pictures, or a pattern was solid red: back-lit strawberries against a red-checked tablecloth; words above and below the strawberries and covering the back; and absolutely no view of the product inside. It was a fun, yet frenetic, design. I could see why it caught my kids’ eyes.

The grown-ups’ jelly, actually strawberry preserves, was in a glass jar with a clear view of the product. The label was plain white with black, hand-written text. No pictures. Very little color.The grown-ups’ jelly, actually strawberry preserves, was in a glass jar with a clear view of the product. The label was plain white with black, hand-written text. No pictures. Very little color.The grown-ups’ jelly, on the other hand, was actually strawberry preserves. The metal cap was adorned with the same red-checked design, but the glass jar offered a clear vision of the product it held. The label was plain white with black, hand-written text. No pictures. Very little color. Plenty of empty space. My kids weren’t interested in it at all (which is great as I prefer not to have chunks of peanut butter in my preserves).

When I compared the two, I couldn’t help but think that the jar of preserves seemed to be confident in what it had to offer, suave, understated. The invitation was there, “You can see what I offer. I will say no more.” The other container seemed to be all about grabbing attention that might wander elsewhere, “Hey! Look at me! I’m what you want! Come on, give me a try! Can’t you see the pile of juicy fruits on my label? You know I’m tasty!”

See these other columns from Dr. R. Andrew Hurley, published in Packaging World magazine:

Progressive Disclosure: The Full-Course Meal of Packaging

“Designing for Kids? Stick it on a Savanna!”

“The Hawthorne Effect & Package Design”

What was it, I thought to myself, that gave me these impressions about these two products? Conventional wisdom might hold that a plain label would seem generic and cheap, yet the opposite was true. There was less on the preserves package, but I had the sense that it cost more. A little research proved me right; ounce-for-ounce, the jar of preserves was three times the cost of the squeezable brand. There’s a lot that goes into making pricing decisions, I know, but I was curious: what makes a product feel more or less expensive just by looking at the package design?

The kids’ squeezable jelly, in its top-to-bottom red design, had very little empty space on it.The kids’ squeezable jelly, in its top-to-bottom red design, had very little empty space on it.Horror vacui is a Latin term that means the fear of empty spaces. It’s a centuries-old concept used primarily in art and design: Fill up an entire space with artwork, details, or information. This is especially prevalent in packaging, with package designs that overflow with benefits, features, and reasons to purchase. Sometimes the claims completely overpower the name of the product. There are marketplaces, too, that fill all available windows, surfaces, and spaces with samples of their wares and promises of low, low prices to lure unsuspecting shoppers in.

Contrast that with packaging that does not fear the empty spaces. A product that simply states the brand, with perhaps a legally required bit of information placed unobtrusively at the bottom. A monochromatic package with just a logo centered on the top. Or a shop with just one mannequin in the window.

Of these two types of scenarios, which do you think will cost more? The product filled to every edge with claims and graphics, or the product with the bare minimum of information?

If you guessed the latter, you’d be correct more often than not. There is no doubt that packaging is a medium for creative expression—it’s an art form, after all; it’s an expression of value. But there is an inverse relationship between horror vacui and how we perceive the value of items. The greater the horror vacui—that is, the more the empty spaces are filled––the lower the perceived value of the item. Alternatively, when there is less information on a package, the perceived value of the item inside is greater. In a sense, more costs less, and less costs more.

Analyzing your package design is a great way to improve your bottom line. One method to increase the perceived value of your product is to reduce visual pieces of information, or chunks, on your package. The average shoppers’ working memory can process seven chunks at first impression. Count the chunks of information on your package design. Does your count exceed seven? If so, which elements could be removed?

Dr. R. Andrew HurleyDr. R. Andrew HurleyTake a look at the packaging around you. Do you see any examples out there where this concept of “more equals less, less equals more” is incorrect? Do you know of packaging in the style of horror vacui that feels more valuable? Or something that has very little on the package, but feels less valuable? How do you feel about this concept of horror vacui? I’m curious about your thoughts and invite you to reach out via email. Better still, send pictures of horror vacui packaging or examples where it doesn’t work. I’ll post them here for all to share.

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