We have studied some of the design trade-offs governing visual representations based on spatially invariant conjunctive feature detectors, with an emphasis on the susceptibility of such systems to false-positive recognition errors—Malsburg's classical binding problem. We begin by deriving an analytical model that makes explicit how recognition performance is affected by the number of objects that must be distinguished, the number of features included in the representation, the complexity of individual objects, and the clutter load, that is, the amount of visual material in the field of view in which multiple objects must be simultaneously recognized, independent of pose, and without explicit segmentation. Using the domain of text to model object recognition in cluttered scenes, we show that with corrections for the nonuniform probability and nonindependence of text features, the analytical model achieves good fits to measured recognition rates in simulations involving a wide range of clutter loads, word sizes, and feature counts. We then introduce a greedy algorithm for feature learning, derived from the analytical model, which grows a representation by choosing those conjunctive features that are most likely to distinguish objects from the cluttered backgrounds in which they are embedded. We show that the representations produced by this algorithm are compact, decorrelated, and heavily weighted toward features of low conjunctive order. Our results provide a more quantitative basis for understanding when spatially invariant conjunctive features can support unambiguous perception in multiobject scenes, and lead to several insights regarding the properties of visual representations optimized for specific recognition tasks.