Measuring visual clutter

J Vis. 2007 Aug 16;7(2):17.1-22. doi: 10.1167/7.2.17.


Visual clutter concerns designers of user interfaces and information visualizations. This should not surprise visual perception researchers because excess and/or disorganized display items can cause crowding, masking, decreased recognition performance due to occlusion, greater difficulty at both segmenting a scene and performing visual search, and so on. Given a reliable measure of the visual clutter in a display, designers could optimize display clutter. Furthermore, a measure of visual clutter could help generalize models like Guided Search (J. M. Wolfe, 1994) by providing a substitute for "set size" more easily computable on more complex and natural imagery. In this article, we present and test several measures of visual clutter, which operate on arbitrary images as input. The first is a new version of the Feature Congestion measure of visual clutter presented in R. Rosenholtz, Y. Li, S. Mansfield, and Z. Jin (2005). This Feature Congestion measure of visual clutter is based on the analogy that the more cluttered a display or scene is, the more difficult it would be to add a new item that would reliably draw attention. A second measure of visual clutter, Subband Entropy, is based on the notion that clutter is related to the visual information in the display. Finally, we test a third measure, Edge Density, used by M. L. Mack and A. Oliva (2004) as a measure of subjective visual complexity. We explore the use of these measures as stand-ins for set size in visual search models and demonstrate that they correlate well with search performance in complex imagery. This includes the search-in-clutter displays of J. M. Wolfe, A. Oliva, T. S. Horowitz, S. Butcher, and A. Bompas (2002) and Bravo and Farid (2004), as well as new search experiments. An additional experiment suggests that color variability, accounted for by Feature Congestion but not the Edge Density measure or the Subband Entropy measure, does matter for visual clutter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology
  • Entropy
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*