Visual Clutter: What it is and How to Get Rid of It

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Your home is clean. The laundry is done (mostly). The floors are vacuumed. The dishes are washed. You’re pretty organized. So why does your home still feel messy? Why can’t you relax? You might need to reduce the visual clutter in your home.

What is visual clutter? How does it impact you? How do you get reduce it? Find all the answers here.
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What is Visual Clutter?

Visual clutter is made up of the items around your home that are within your vision — pretty much everything from the items on your counters, the decor on your shelves, the paintings on your walls and even the items inside your cabinets.

Alone, each of these items barely registers, but all together they can create a cluttered, messy look.

What’s on your kitchen counter? Common items might be cookbooks, oils, plants, a crock of utensils, a dish rack, a toaster, a KitchenAid mixer, a coffee pot, and maybe a bowl of fruit. That’s a lot to look at.

Having too many items, even useful items, on your kitchen counter adds to visual clutter.
What’s on your kitchen counter?

Common culprits of visual clutter include signs, collections, gallery walls, and throw pillows. It’s probably a bunch of things you’ve chosen with intention to make your house a home. Unfortunately, these very things may be causing you stress.

As you read, start to look around your house for visual clutter hot spots. This article will explore how to identify visual clutter and reduce it.

The Impact of Visual Clutter

Visual clutter is tricky because it’s not necessarily messy or obvious, but it can still have a negative impact on various aspects of your life.

Visual Clutter Causes Stress

You may not even be aware of it, but having items on your counters, shelves, and walls can increase stress levels and anxiety, especially amongst women. Every time you look around your home, there’s something to see. It can seem messy, even if it’s technically not, and it can prevent you from relaxing.

If you or members in your household have attention issues, such as ADHD, visual clutter can exacerbate symptoms and reduce ability to focus. [source]

Visual Clutter Steals Time

It may not be obvious, but clutter can be a time suck, even if it’s decorative clutter. If your counters and shelves are full of items, dusting and cleaning those spaces can be time consuming. You’ve got to dust all the actual items, then you need to move them out of the way to dust the surface. Finally, you’ve got to put all the items back.

Clutter Steals Air Quality

I always tell clients, if systems aren’t easy, you won’t use them. The same goes for cleaning. If it’s difficult, if it’s time consuming, if it’s a big job, you’re much less likely to do it. Moving all your items to dust around them is all the above. So how often do you really do it?

Probably not often enough, resulting in your home being full of dust, allergens and air pollution.

Visual Clutter is Expensive

When you succumb to purchasing decorative items or collections that contribute to visual clutter, it can be expensive (Yes, I’m looking at your Ray Dunne collection.). When you start a collection or open the door to having a collection, it can be quite addicting. Unless we’re talking about a rock collection, it can also be expensive.

Starting a collection can be a slippery slope. Where does it end?

Visual Clutter Awareness

Everyone’s tolerance for clutter and stuff is different. Women’s tolerance seems to be lower than men’s but it obviously depends on the person.

Psssst! If you’re reading this and have no idea what I’m describing, you may be one of those people with a high visual noise tolerance!

So many of us are so overwhelmed by all of our things, we don’t know what to do. But don’t worry, there are simple ways to reduce visual clutter. Yes, you might have to let some of your collection go, but you can still keep your home cozy, comfortable and yours while simplifying and reducing visual clutter.

Look Around

The first step to reducing visual clutter is to realize it’s there. Look around your home. How busy are your spaces? How many pillows are on the couch? How many little things are jammed onto the mantel and the shelves? How much is on your counter? Do you have a lot on your walls? Are there many different colors or do you have a consistent pallet?

Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee. Spend a few days just being aware. If it starts to bother you, take a few of the steps below.

Quiet Your Space

If, suddenly, your items are feeling a bit suffocating, Myquellin Smith, aka The Nester, recommends trying to “Quiet Your Space” by removing all decorative items and small pieces of furniture from your room. Put these items in a temporary holding area — no purging yet.

Cozy Minimalist Home is a worthwhile read, especially if you're striving for a simpler look.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a worthwhile read, especially if you’re striving for a simpler look.

Yes, it will feel pretty barren at first, but after a day or two you’ll get used to it and you will get used to it, and maybe even like it. During this time, you’ll probably also miss some things. These are the ones that are key to bring back in, the ones that really matter.

Related Post: Why Minimalism is for Moms

Create a vision for your space, centered on the items you’re missing. For more details on how to bring these items back into your home in a stylish way, I highly recommend checking out Myquellin Smith’s book The Cozy Minimalist (no ebook here, you’re going to want to flip through the real thing! See if your library has it!). I’m all about reducing visual clutter, but I don’t pretend I know how to be a designer!

Quieting your space can be a helpful first step to reducing visual clutter.

Ways to Reduce Visual Clutter

If you’re not quite ready to remove all your personal items from a space, there are many other quick and simple options for simplifying the look of your space.

Clear Surfaces

A first, simple step to reducing visual clutter is to clear your surfaces. When I say surfaces, I’m referring to kitchen and bathroom counters, any and all side/coffee/end tables, and even benches and shelves.

First, you’ll want to eliminate actual clutter like piles of paper and dishes.

Then, simplify items that are “supposed to be” on the surfaces. There’s a lot to be said for clean lines and being able to quickly and simply wipe down these spaces.

Try some of these tidying tasks:

  • put utensils in a drawer instead of a crock on the counter
  • put knives in a drawer if they’re on the counter
  • Find spare cabinet space for the mixer or blender
  • Put the crock pot in a closet?
  • Keep only 1-2 towels out
  • Simplify your windowsill
  • Put away any candles, especially if you don’t burn them
  • Store as much under the bathroom sink as possible
  • Reduce knickknacks, picture frames, and any other decorative items

Look around your rooms critically and see how much you can remove – it’s just temporary to see how you like it!

Use Boxes and Baskets to Contain Like Items

Bins shouldn’t be an excuse to keep things you should declutter, but there are still many items you need. Using a bin or basket to contain these items looks much neater and visually pleasing than having them all out on a counter or shelf.

Tips for Selecting Bins:

  • Select matching bins
  • Aim for a neutral color or natural fiber
  • Select bins that match the color palette and tone of your space
  • Choose bins that are an appropriate size for what you’re storing

If you’ve always got blankets left crumpled on your couches, consider a large wicker basket for quickly tossing them into.

If you’ve got shoes cluttering up your entryway, a basket is a simple way to keep the space neat and reduce tripping hazards.

Stuffed animals taking over your life? You guessed it. A basket will work wonders.

Color Block

Store colorful items together. Take books, for instance. Having all different sizes and colors scattered within a shelf is something we’re used to, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother us subconsciously. Grouping them by color in rainbow order makes them look like they go together and is a nice pop of color when you look around the room.

Color-blocked books and a basket made of natural fibers reduces visual clutter.
Color-blocked books and a basket made of natural fibers reduces visual clutter.

When you have multiple items in a space or on a shelf, color blocking those items can reduce visual clutter and make more of a statement.

Remove Packaging

“Decanting” is all the rage in the organizing world. Why is that? There are a few reasons, but mostly it looks nice because when you remove the packaging from items, you’re reducing visual clutter.

Envision a bag of trail mix, for instance. It’s usually brightly colored with lots of wording. When you remove the trail mix from the bag and store it in a mason jar, it’s mostly brown and tan with a few pops of colors if you purchased the kind with M&M’s.

While I don’t decant everything in my pantry, I do decant some things and I put the rest of my food in bins. The bins keep my food sorted by category, but they also simplify the look of my pantry.

To Decant or Not to Decant? Read More Here.

Line & Stack Items Up Nicely

There’s also a lot to be said for simply lining things up nicely. Cans on a riser, books on a shelf, plates in a cabinet, towels on a bench. Simply arranging things a certain way can provide a cleaner look that’s visually pleasing to the eye.

The same goes for photos and pictures on the walls. Even if you’re not totally aware of it, when pictures are crooked they can add visual stress to your environment.

Photo: McCoy Artwork & Photography

Go Big or Group Like

When decorating a space, choosing a few larger statement pieces instead of a variety of smaller pieces can make a big statement in a less-cluttered way.

One large picture, a big vase, or a large plant are all very bold in a room as opposed to a few smaller pictures, vases, or plants (Myquellin Smith goes into this a lot in Cozy Minimalist Home, mentioned above)

Aim for Negative Space

Just because you have the space doesn’t mean you have to fill it! Leaving some negative (empty) space on a shelf allows the other items on the shelf to shine instead of getting lost in the crowd.

Grouping like items and leaving negative space are great ways to reduce visual clutter.
Grouping like items and leaving negative space are great ways to reduce visual clutter. Photo: McCoy Artwork & Photography

Try this with kitchen cabinets and wall space, too. Just enjoy the empty space, knowing you have room to grow if you need it (but try not to need it).

Hide the Cords

One last way to reduce visual clutter is to hide, or at least bundle, your cords. These days, there’s really no avoiding cords for electronics, but there are some helpful products and methods you can try.

  • Cord Clips help keep your cords where you want them — adhere them to the back of furniture or behind a computer so the cords aren’t visible.
  • Cord Organizers help bundle cords so they look like one strand instead of several.
  • Cord Management Boxes can hide surge protectors and the mess that comes with them.
  • Cord Covers match your base moulding or can you can paint them your wall color so the cords blend in.
  • Cord Pass-Throughs are installed right into the drywall to hide the cords behind the wall. This is a great option for wall-mounted televisions.

Goodbye, Visual Clutter

If your home is neat but you still just can’t relax, consider visual clutter as a possible culprit. Try a few of the suggestions above for reducing visual clutter and see how you feel.

I’d love to know what you think and the results that you had! Drop a comment below and let me me know!

Visual Clutter and How to Stop it

1 thought on “Visual Clutter: What it is and How to Get Rid of It”

  1. No plastic!! Plastic items will uglify a space just as quickly as excess clutter. Anything that “lives” out in the open must be metal, wood, glass, ceramic, paper, fabric, etc. And no product labels, as you suggest here…I started a crusade many years ago to eliminate both these things from kitchen countertops, and now it’s extended into the cabinets themselves, with glass jars for storing dry goods (pasta, beans, rice, grains).

    Otherwise, it seems that many could accomplish two things at once by displaying practical items in the open, such as in your toilet paper example. We buy things to display on table tops and shelves, and then we need storage to hide our ugly stuff. Why not find ways to display the things we use every day, or even invest in things that can be displayed openly? A hand-crafted broom instead of a plastic one bought at the grocery store? A wood-handled toilet scrubber with natural bristles? Matching wood coat hangers? I’m a huge fan of glass apothecary jars, for the kitty litter, dog food, laundry detergent, or just about anything that comes in a bag or cardboard box. Of course these things won’t go in the living room but we can still beautify our private living spaces and save our purchased “decor” to supplement books and photos in public spaces. And as you point out, less can be more. Thanks for the additional tips…good to know it’s not just me who gets so distracted by “stuff”.

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