What Do Studies Say About Visual Complexity In Web Design?

Peter A. Liefer II | Posted: March 15th, 2022 | Updated: July 1st, 2022

A person viewing your website can judge it visually in seconds. This judgment depends a lot on the website’s design. But what separates good design from a bad one? While some say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, researchers have been working hard to define an objectively good design. They have conducted several studies on this, and the most relevant concept today is visual complexity. When a design is too complex, it can overwhelm our minds because of too much information. When something is too simple, the lack of effort can reflect the maker’s intentions. To clarify this, let us probe into what the scientific field says about the relationship between visual complexity and web design.

The Concept Of Visual Complexity 

This concept arose from attempting to make sense of a person’s perception of aesthetics. According to Berlyne’s Theories of Aesthetics, three things can form an impression from design: novelty, complexity, and familiarity.

You must maintain a strict balance between the first two, especially when considering the complexity of the design. While novelty and originality can leave an impression on a person, you should not leave familiarity out of the picture. Familiarity can give off a welcoming atmosphere in a design that can affect the duration of stay of a viewer.

An observer judges the visual complexity of a design through the quality of the detail within it and its intricacies. This is crucial in web design due to the innate customizability of web pages. A designer can fall prey to the temptation of expressing themselves and proving their skills through complicated design. However, if it prevents people from exploring the website, you have wasted time and effort. Well, then, how exactly can we incorporate visual complexity into web design?

How Is Visual Complexity Integrated Into Web Design?

The integration of visual complexity into web design relies on the stimulus presented by the website and the response from the viewer. This stimulus-response relationship was apparent in a 2019 study. In this study, the researchers examined 277 young adults regarding how visual complexity can influence their impression of a website. It noted the participants’ visual informativeness, cues for engagement, favorable initial impressions, and behavioral intentions.

The research classified the visual complexity in the sample website with two criteria: design complexity and feature complexity. They also accounted for text and image complexity as well as the perceptual variables of the website. The indicators of these criteria are as follows:

  • A web design with high design complexity has:
    • A high number of objects
    • irregularity of object shapes
    • Inconsistent and dissimilar objects
    • High visual detail
    • Asymmetry in object arrangement
    • Irregular object arrangement
  • A web design with high feature complexity has high image quality of objects.
  • A web design with high perceptual variables has a high number of interactable objects.

Differing Results From Differing Studies

The results showed that a high design complexity of a website positively affects a person’s impression of it. On the other hand, it appears that the feature complexity or the image quality of the objects used on the website does not affect a viewer’s impression. In terms of perceptual variables, viewers favor web designs with a high degree of interaction.

These results do not necessarily mean that you should create a website with high design complexity. Another study conducted in 2021 shows an inverse relationship between visual complexity and online purchase intention. This means that the more complex a web design seems, the less likely a person would stay and buy from that website. 

These contradicting results commonly appear throughout several studies on the psychology of something that people can consider subjective. However, we can try to make sense of the two studies by examining their participants.

The 2019 study had participants of 277 young adults, while the 2021 study had 229 acceptable participants through a convenience sampling of people from the researcher’s network. We are highlighting this to bring up a possible effect on the results of your web design impressions due to your target audience. A possible explanation for the difference in the results could be the limited age of the 2019 study or the diversity of the participants in the 2021 study.

Verdict: What Can We Get From Visual Complexity

In the end, the answer still depends on something. However, this means we have to capitalize on that dependent variable by manipulating visual complexity to suit your audience. In summarizing all the points that we can apply from visual complexity, we have the following points:

    • Apply the criteria of design complexity: while the effectiveness of visual complexity as a whole is not conclusive, you can still apply a combination of the design complexity criteria. Experimenting with these combinations will allow you more areas to edit your design.
    • Assess your design complexity: You can evaluate your website’s design complexity in several ways. It would be advantageous if you had a diverse set of people who could critique your design if your website had a general audience. On the other hand, you may also base your design on catering to a specific audience. This audience can be groups of the same age, biological sex, hobby, or location.
    • Make use of interactable objects: As far as studies show, perceptual variables or interactable objects are a plus in web design. This allows users to traverse your website using stimuli that could affect website retention. 

Overall, the most important trait to have as a web designer or developer is the capacity to adapt to the current demands, especially in a start-up. You should be able to pinpoint your audience to create a website suitable for them. At the same time, you should be able to take feedback from them for the website’s continued improvement.