How Environments, Real And Virtual, Influence Us

How Environments, Real And Virtual, Influence Us

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By Kyle Mueller

Published on August 5, 2008

I get anxious in certain environments. The reasons for this can vary from general disorganization to bad lighting or clashing colors, but the biggest culprit is usually clutter.

Clutter is the stuff that has no “place”, doesn’t belong with its surroundings, and serves little to no purpose. It’s not that I’m a clean-freak, it’s that I’m a designer, and I have a heightened sensitivity to things that are out of place or irrelevant. When disorder reigns, I get uneasy, anxious, even dizzy. On occasion, it gets bad enough that I feel a sudden urge to flee as quickly as possible.

Sometimes I get the same feeling when I’m surfing the web. Everyone feels this sensation to some degree, and it triggers the “fight or flight” response hard-wired into our brains (stay here and fight through this mess, or get out as fast as you can). It’s no wonder most web pages are abandoned within a few seconds of viewing.

Whether intended or not, a person’s home and the way he presents it are physical manifestations of his personality just as the design and content of a corporate website are virtual manifestations of a brand. Environments, both real and virtual, affect human perception and behavior.

Clutter on the web

Clutter mostly comes from a couple of sources. As a natural progression, a home and a website seem to accumulate things—and at the same time, they are rarely purged of non-essentials. There is also the “design by committee” effect where everyone from every department wants their information front and center. It’s better to decide what is most crucial and provide easy access to the rest. In a living room, the kids’ toys should be contained in a designated basket or toy chest, while on a typical corporate website, the HR information should be kept on the HR page. Most people are not coming to the home page to look for employment.

In someone’s home a quick escape is not always easy, but on a home page, the back button is just a click away. If a web site is like a house, and its pages are like rooms, how do we make visitors feel comfortable enough to stay? And come back again? How do we as designers create environments to attract, comfort and retain visitors? These are the things both interior and web designers stew over.

Visual Elements

On a website, color, typography, iconography, and other imagery should be considered as carefully as an interior designer considers surfaces, furnishings, and art. Are they appropriate for the target user? A site targeting “metal heads” will not appeal to its market if it is bathed in soft pastels and cutesy typefaces!

And who can forget how awkward and out-of-place our parents felt when they first visited our bachelor pads—it’s no wonder they stayed at a hotel when they came to town. While my early interior design skills had little real life impact, websites are crucial communications tools for companies and if they are to be successful, they must strategically speak the visual language of their audiences.


There are appropriate uses of color for specific messages targeted at specific end users. Once an appropriate color palette is defined, a designer can use it to direct users to specific content, organize that content, and create an appropriate environment. Too many colors, colors that clash, or use of too much strong color can make a space feel cramped and cluttered.


Too many typefaces in one place is like cramming a room with furnishings from different eras. Stick to a theme, and visitors will be more comfortable and get a better sense of the message the type is sending.

In the realm of the web browser, some typefaces do not translate well and most are not available to the general population. As a result, “/files/includes/default.css” fonts like Times New Roman and Helvetica clutter web pages everywhere. Most typefaces, like Times and Helvetica, were developed for /files/includes/print.css applications, and do not reproduce well on screen at 8pt.


We have all seen web pages with the cheerful customer service woman, or the close-up of the two hands shaking to “close the deal”. This is clutter, just like the faded Matisse /files/includes/print.csss we hung on our walls in college with scotch tape. Imagery (photos, illustrations, icons) should enhance an environment by promoting a message or feeling. Iconography can be a helpful cue for web users, or it can be unnecessary and even misleading.

Home decorators and web developers can also both fall prey to the curse of “free” stuff. There is a reason some web imagery and old sofas on the sidewalk are free. Imagery becomes clutter when it serves no purpose, lacks quality, or is poorly presented.


A clearly defined hierarchy of information is crucial to helping users understand what a site has to offer and finding the information they seek. If too many elements are shouting at visitors (flashing, bold, large, bright….), they are likely to be overwhelmed and move on. Sites that have a clear focus and logically organize less critical messages and elements provide a more approachable environment. Information that is presented with one voice and sticks to a clear message is more likely to keep viewers engaged and confident.

Navigation and User Feedback

A house is generally set up with its rooms in logical locations; the front door generally does not lead to a bedroom. The same is true for a well-designed website. If a visitor has to think about where they can click to get more information, or click through multiple pages to get to specific information, they are not likely to stick around. The best websites clearly map out what information is available where, and lead viewers to critical content via subtle feedback, like buttons or text that highlight when the mouse travels over them.


The bottom line is that “web clutter” affects a business’ bottom line. It has been well documented how clutter can drain us of time, energy, and trigger stress. When considered in the realm of the internet, cluttered web pages make finding information difficult and lead to abandonment. Websites that are “sticky” present viewers with a comfortable and organized environment and logical organization of content that helps viewers understand what is available and where to find it. The goal is to create an organized “home”, with only the necessary things in their logical places to allow customers to find what they’re seeking.

Ahhh. Peace at home and on the homepage through good design.

Related Topics: Planning, Interaction Design, Information Design, History of Technology

Kyle Mueller is the principal and creative director at MUELLER design in Oakland California. Over the 11 years of running his design studio, he has cultivated brand vitality for clients such as Wind River, McKesson, Heller Ehrman, Facebook, APL, Nintendo and Boeing. When not at the design studio, he escapes to his home recording studio to compose, record and mix music.