As a shopper approaches the entrance to a store or shop, and walks through the doorstep, he or she quickly figures out how inviting the venue is. Does the store look interesting and compelling, showing a potential for exhibiting merchandise articles of value? Or does the scene look so crowded and messy it is hard to believe one can find there anything he or she may need or desire? More basically, do the store’s interior design and display appear pleasant to the eye or annoying? While consumers generally like to keep things simple and in good order, some degree of visual complexity can help to capture shoppers’ attention and make the store more attractive and inviting for prospect customers.
A simple design, stripped of any form of art and modestly furnished for displaying merchandise, stands the risk of being perceived too boring to justify spending time in the store or shop. An element of surprise, a break from the ordinary or standard, may be necessary to intrigue the shopper and entice him to enter and study the store more closely. But deciding on the right measure of complexity can be difficult. A store owner may not want to complicate its design and display to a level that is overwhelming for the shopper, making it hard for the eye to absorb (e.g., an unruly mixture of deep and flashy colours, every furniture or fixture in a different form and style). Challenging the shoppers is welcome, but the challenge should be carefully planned and designed so as not to scare them off. Importantly, planning for visual complexity is not just a matter of amount but even more so a matter of its form and composition.
Introducing variability (e.g., in shapes or colours) and irregularities (e.g., construct displays in non-parallel lines), for example, increase the complexity of a design. Complexity does not have to be extensive — a few elements can be sufficient to spice-up the design of a store; and even a disruption of “normal” order can have rules. When increasing visual complexity in the store one should take care to maintain the aesthetic appearance of its scene. In reference to the design of products, Hekkert (1) proposed four goals towards an aesthetic and pleasant visual design: maximum effectiveness from minimum means (e.g., use a few and simple features, apply correlated features that co-align into a meaningful construct); unity in variety (i.e., follow specific principles like those of Gestalt to maintain order and control in variety); striking a balance between novelty and typicality that excites but does not shock the consumers; and, co-ordinate between stimuli that relate to the different human senses. Hekkert argued that the aesthetic experience should be considered in tandem with the experience of meaning and emotional experience. We may refer to these goals as a benchmark for constructing discernible but sensible complexity — for instance, breaking away from a Gestalt principle (e.g., symmetry) increases complexity, but it should be done without dissolving the whole organization of the store’s scene. Such guidelines could be of particular relevance for the design of product display, that is, visual merchandising.
Visual complexity may arise from different factors such as the number and range of elements or objects in a scene, the variety and density of visual-graphic features present (e.g., colours, shapes, texture), and deviation from principles of organization and regularity (e.g., symmetry, similarity, repetition). Clutter is associated with complexity but is not synonym with it. Clutter frequently represents the objective information-side of complexity, that is, the (excessive) detail and (weak-structured) layout of information in the scene. It is viewed as a driver of complexity though it is not the only facet to consider. Visual complexity, on the other hand, often reflects the personal subjective perspective, such as the evaluation by individuals (e.g., with respect to attractiveness) and their response to complexity. However, references in research to ‘complexity’ can be as complex and diverse as the term itself suggests. The effect of visual complexity on consumer processing, evaluation and behavioural response is important with respect to appearance of products and their packages, ads, webpages, and scenes of retail and service physical environments.
Store owners have the choice whether to display more or less merchandise in the main space of the premises, and where and how to display it (e.g., on tables, counters or shelves at the centre, along the wall, or as a fixture attached to the wall). Additional elements of interior design would accompany the display to create the overall impression for the shopper-viewer. Orth and Wirtz (2) tested direct and mediated effects of visual interior complexity on store attractiveness in two types of environments, deli stores (merchandise-oriented) and coffee shops (service-oriented). They showed that greater complexity (e.g., many products crowded on a long counter) hurts the perceived attractiveness of the store. Attractiveness is furthermore mediated by the pleasure experienced by shoppers-viewers from the display and overall scene. That is, lower attractiveness is driven, or can be explained, by shoppers being unhappy with or annoyed by the visual scene. It is also attributed to a decrease in processing fluency of the more complex visual scene (fluency is mediating between complexity and pleasure). The consequences, as this research shows, can be a behavioural tendency of avoidance from a more complex store and weaker intention to revisit it.
The researchers measured “attractiveness” with respect to aspects of overall attractiveness, product quality and price level. However, information on products and prices was only implicitly shown but not manipulated, or alternatively not shown at all. Hence, our ability to learn how complexity, as an attribute of visual design, fares in its effect on store attractive relative to the other two aspects is very limited. The effect of complexity that seems truly to matter relates to pleasure experienced from viewing the store’s scene, pertaining particularly to its visual appeal (not mentioned in the scale of attractiveness) — complexity is less appealing to the eye. This experience is sensibly influenced by the lower fluency when perceiving the visual scene.
But the case for visual complexity in the store is not yet lost. The answer for employing complexity to the advantage of the store or shop may be in selectively implementing particular layers or facets of visual complexity in the interior design and visual merchandising of the retail outlet. We may learn a lesson from research by Pieters, Wedel and Batra (3) who analysed visual complexity and its effects in the context of advertising from the consumer perspective. They made an important distinction between “feature complexity” and “design complexity” and showed that these layers of complexity have opposite effects on attention and attitude (through techniques of eye-tracking and direct questions).
Feature complexity refers to the variation, density and layout of visual features (colour, luminance and edges) across a whole scene. For example, an ad image that contains more colours all over is more feature-complex. In other words, feature complexity is enhanced as the eye has to shift more frequently between areas of different colour, luminance or texture and cross more edges of objects and frames. Clutter is associated in this account with feature complexity. Design complexity pertains to the appearance of identifiable objects contained in the scene (e.g., a picture of a product or a fashion model figure, a brand logo). The six criteria defined by the authors may be divided into two groups: (a) criteria concerned with the appearance of specific objects (irregularity of object shape, dissimilarity of objects [differ in shape, colour, texture or orientation], and having more edge and colour detail); (b) criteria concerned with the layout or arrangement of objects ([greater] quantity, asymmetry of object arrangement and irregularity of object arrangement). It is noted that configuring and designing the appearance and arrangement of particular objects is to a great extent in the control of ad designers, and hence their better ability to determine the level of design complexity of the ad. Pieters and his colleagues substantiate the following differing effects of feature and design complexities:
- Feature complexity reduces attention to the advertising brand (e.g., its name heading or logo). Furthermore, greater feature complexity (visual clutter) hurts consumer attitude towards the ad.
- Design complexity increases attention to the pictorial elements in the ad as well as to the ad in whole. Moreover, higher levels of design complexity improve attitude towards the ad.
(It is also shown that greater design complexity together with better brand identifiability in the ad enhance ad comprehensibility, probably by improving consumer ability to attach associations inferred from the ad with the focal brand.)
Extending insights from ads to brick-and-mortar retail stores is not quick and easy. First, an ad is a two-dimensional image whereas the store’s space is a three-dimensional scene — our perception of visual effects differs between 2D and 3D views (e.g., a photograph compared with the actual location). In addition, ads often incorporate an heterogeneous mix of different types of pictorial and text elements and other graphic features, conjoint in a discontinuous layout not possible in a physical 3D space. Nevertheless, some insights on visual complexity seem applicable also to the interior design of a store and to visual merchandising.
Consider these two examples for increasing design complexity in a store:
- Imagine a shelf display on a wall where merchandise articles (e.g., sweaters) on each row are in a different colour; suppose we now arrange items so that in the center we get, for instance, a circle filled with items in a colour different from the remaining display, thus adding a colour while “breaking” the horizontal rows of the shelves.
- Suppose we created a display composed of small square tables on the floor with merchandise articles (e.g., books) on top; we may add complexity by placing one table in a different shape (e.g., triangle), or moreover add a stand in an irregular shape.
Another issue may be raised with regard to design complexity, whether instead of manipulating visual aspects of specific fixtures or props it is better to manipulate their arrangement and for example set asymmetric or irregular layouts. These design variations may serve to make a statement or highlight cues about the store’s image. The challenge is not to lose sight of the whole scene to avoid rendering it too confused, disturbing or difficult to follow (i.e., cluttered). We may further realise that even in a store the visibility of a brand logo, large photographic images posted on walls and other signage count, no less than in ads — they support brand identifiability and visual merchandising.
If a retailer is cautious and prefers to start in a middle ground, here are a few possible avenues for action. Front windows make a good place to start. Particularly the cabin-type window displays that are closed on the back and block the view into the shop’s space sustain a scene that is closer to 2D. The front window displays are of special importance because they provide shoppers the first introduction as they approach the shop. And of course one may also on advertising for the store, such as for an ad that includes a photographic image of the store. Specifically for ad posters that are intended to be shown in the store (e.g., new fashion outfits, deals), Pieters, Wedel and Batra recommend that they should reduce feature-based clutter as much as possible because of the short duration shoppers are expected to be exposed to those ads. Photo images of a store may also constitute a practical and suitable medium for studying consumers’ evaluation (e.g., visual appeal) and attitude given an exhibited level of complexity in the store.
Introducing visual complexity in a store is a matter of form, composition and style. Not just the extent of complexity created but also in what ways it is done will determine its acceptance and favourability by shoppers. Ultimately visual complexity needs to stimulate shoppers to purchase. Applying aspects of design complexity is the course for store owners or managers, and visual merchandisers and interior designers working with them, to exercise their creativity. But it is essential at all times to keep an eye on the overall scene outcome so as not to fall into a trap of creating too much visual clutter and confusion.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.
(2) Consumer Processing of Interior Service Environments: The Inerplay Among Visual Complexity, Processing Fluency, and Attractiveness; Ulrich R. Orth & Jochen Wirtz, 2014; Journal of Service Research, 17 (3), pp. 296-309
(3) The Stopping Power of Advertising: Measures and Effects of Visual Complexity; Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, & Rajeev Batra, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (Sept.), pp. 48-60.