Monday, August 27, 2007

Scientists find a way to measure visual clutter

One of the most common complaints from those who appose digital signage and out-of-home advertising in general is that it creates a visual clutter that "pollutes" the landscape with distracting and often unattractive messages. While I'm sure we've all seen our fair share of poorly-constructed ads that to take away from the environment, the argument over what constitutes "clutter" and what's merely an extension of the existing surroundings has been a difficult one for both sides, as there has been no way to quantify any kind of visual "unit". But all that might be about to change...

According to this article at MIT News, researchers working on a way to optimize graphical user interfaces on computers and personal electronics have been able to quantify visual clutter by looking at the things that make individual visual items easier or harder to pick out of the crowd (think color, contrast, edges, curves versus lines, and so on). The article notes:

To be useful, such a tool has to capture the effect of clutter on performance. In their paper, Rosenholtz and her colleagues-- MIT BCS graduate student Yuanzhen Li and BCS undergraduate Lisa Nakano--tested the influence of clutter on searching for a symbol in a map, like an arrow indicating "you are here." They found good correlation between the time it takes to find a symbol in a map and the amount of clutter according to their measure.

In earlier work they also showed that their clutter detector correlates well with human subjective judgments of clutter. In that case, the team asked 20 people to rank 25 maps of the United States and San Francisco in order from most cluttered to least cluttered. The maps ranged from a gray and green map of the 50 states to a San Francisco Bay area map overlaid with lines, words and colors.

Although there was a fair bit of disagreement among the people being tested about what constituted clutter, when the researchers compared results from their clutter measure to those of their human subjects, they found a good correlation.

While the tool has been created to study a relatively confined environment (namely, a computer desktop), it stands to reason that the same software could be used to create a metric that could be used in other environments as well, like the inside of a store, the exterior of a shopping mall, or the side of a road at a busy intersection. I certainly feel like there are times when being able to do a before-and-after comparisons and say something like "the signage increased visual clutter by 6.5%, but any negative aesthetic consequences are offset by 4.3% improved navigability" would be very useful.

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