Why read this? : We show how design psychology helps you understand how people experience designs. Knowing what goes on in their heads helps you create better, more impactful designs. We share 5 of the most common design psychology principles, with examples of how to use them. Read this to learn how to make your designs easier to process and remember.
But to be an expert designer, you need to learn more advanced design skills and principles.
One of these is design psychology and that’s what we focus on this week.
It applies what we know about how our brains work to how we experience and interact with designs.
For example, what makes us even notice a design? How do we decide to give it our attention? Or ignore it? Which factors in a design help make it more (or less) memorable?
The more you understand the psychology of design, the more impactful your designs will be. You can apply this knowledge to influence how customers perceive your brand.
It’s similar to behavioural science, but focussed on design. You get into the customer’s head. You work out why they do the things they do. Doing this helps you design better solutions for them. You make it easier for customers to understand and remember your design.
Design psychology - sources used
There’s many studies and books which cover design psychology. In this article, we’ve mainly used these highly recommended books for inspiration :-
- Universal Principles of Design – William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler.
- 100 things every designer needs to know about people – Susan Weinschenk.
- Don’t make me think – Steve Krug.
- Pre-Suasion – Robert Cialdini.
Design psychology tip 1 - Focus on the entry point
In design psychology, the entry point is where and when a customer first interacts with a design. This could be :-
- a physical entry point like the entrance to your office, shop or factory.
- a symbolic entry point like your website home page or a specific landing page.
In design, first impressions matter. That initial interaction shapes the rest of the experience. It has a lasting impact, due to what’s called the serial position effect in design psychology.
Designs often contain many different elements. But our brains can’t process these all at once. So, we narrow it down. We evaluate one specific element (the entry point) first.
If we decide it’s worth further evaluation, we move on to the next element. And then the next, and so on. But if that first element doesn’t hit the mark, we stop.
So, the entry point has to both capture attention, and make customers want to keep going with the rest of the design. That’s why designers spend a lot of time on it. They load it with the strongest, most relevant and impactful design ideas. You either hook customers in to engage more, or you lose them completely. The entry point can make or break your design.
The home page entry point
For example, think about your website home page. It’s an obvious “entry point” to your brand and designs. It’s often the first thing new customers see, so it needs to create a good first impression.
Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think suggests you use a set of basic questions to help put yourself in the shoes of a new visitor to your website :-
- Where am I?
- Where should I begin?
- What are the most important things on this page?
- Where did they put (important parts of the page)?
- Why did they call (elements on the page) that?
- Is that an ad or part of the site?
If the answers to these are clear, it’s a good sign the page is doing what it needs to. These are the “entry point” thoughts new visitors have when they first open the page. You can use these as a checklist to make sure your website entry point is helping the customer find what they need.
Our home page entry point example
As an example, look at the entry point to this site. Our home page navigation bar shows our URL, brand name and logo.
Visitors know exactly where they are. That bar plus the opening content section shows visitors where to start and what’s important.
If visitors can’t find what they need from there, there’s also a search bar in the top menu (where you’d expect to find it). Plus, we made the second section a search bar too.
You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Design your entry points to help you do that.
Design psychology tip 2 – Learn the value of priming
But it’s not just where you make a first impression, it’s how. That’s where priming, our next design psychology principle, comes in.
When you first experience something new (like a new design), your brain wants to quickly make sense of it. Part of that process is to see if it connects with something you already know. Your brain quickly processes external stimuli by calling up relevant mental associations from your memory.
Green lights mean go. Red lights mean stop. We know that because those associations are in our memory. We’ve been primed to recognise them. No need for deep thinking. You know what those signals mean.
Designs which use priming understand these mental associations. What’s likely to be in the customer’s memory. You prime your design by using these associations in your design.
For example, designs can use colour associations. Green is associated with nature and freshness as an example. Blue signals trust and calm.
You choose a colour to prime customers to make specific associations. (see our colour psychology article for more on this).
Typographic associations work in a similar way. Serif fonts signal authenticity and tradition. Sans serif fonts signal modernity and clarity.
Again, design choices prime customers to make those associations. (see our psychology of fonts article for more on this).
(Priming also works in non-design interactions. See the story of the salesman who “forgot” his sales materials in our recent behavioural science article, for example).
Priming starts with your objective. You work out the change in perception you want to influence. Then you look for the mental associations which “go” with that change. You build these into your design to prime the customer to think that way.
Examples of priming associations
For example, say you want to prime confidence. You could do that by showing people confidently using your design. Happy, smiling and positive.
Or, let’s say your brand wants to make people think more or differently. You could show people looking thoughtful. Looking up to the skies. Or with their hands on their chin. You could use clever words (like “brain”!).
You can also use priming to reinforce your positioning.
Many online retailer websites do this with the way they display products, for example. If the positioning focuses on high quality, the site will show the most premium products first. Price will be a relatively small part of the design.
But, if the positioning’s around good value, the site will show the cheapest products first. Price will be a large part of the design.
These different decision choices prime the shopper to think in a certain way about the store and what it sells.
Packaging design’s another area which often uses priming to create mental associations.
Say you want to associate your brand with “nature”.
Now instead, imagine you want the association to be “science”. Your design choices to prime that would be different, wouldn’t they?
Different colours – blue probably. Different images – diagrams, illustrations and symbols. You’d use more modern sans serif typography.
The key to priming is to understand what mental associations already exist. You build those into your design. You use them to prime the entry point, and subsequent interactions with your design.
Design psychology tip 3 - Progressive disclosure
Next, we look at how to use design psychology to influence on-going customer interactions. Here, the key principle is progressive disclosure.
It’s based on the same principle as entry points and priming. Our brains can only handle so much information at any one time. Too much information at once, and we feel overwhelmed. We switch off.
With progressive disclosure you reveal information a little at at time. This drip feeds it out. The audience get the information they need as and when they need it.
Information as and when needed
The key to progressive disclosure is how you organise information. First, cut out anything that’s not absolutely necessary. Then, put what’s left in a logical sequential order which the audience can work though bit by bit. Information is only given as and when needed.
Keep the information elements of your design simple. Lead people to where they need to go next.
Call to action links and buttons on websites are good examples. They prevent designs being cluttered with too much information. They give just enough information so visitors can choose what to do next.
Progressive disclosure puts the customer / user in control. They click where they want to go. As long as they feel they’re making progress towards their goal, they’ll keep clicking until they get there. This is a better than overwhelming people with information.
Where to use progressive disclosure
You can use progressive disclosure to help you organise content and sections on your website to make it easier for visitors.
Our marketing guides covers over 30 different topics for example. But we don’t put all those on the home page or on the initial navigation bar. Instead, they’re progressively disclosed.
Clicking on marketing takes you to 6 broad topics to explore. You only get the detail of the sub-topics by clicking on the broad topic link.
Our online shop also uses progressive disclose.
Each product page (the entry point) only shows product and price information. That’s all you need at the start of your shopping visit.
But, if you decide to buy, then you’ll also want to know about delivery times and costs.
This information appears at the next stage when the customer is at the check-out.
You only get all the details to check at the end of the process. It’s shared as and when the customer actually needs it. It’s progressively disclosed.
Design Psychology Tip 4 - Chunking
This drip-feeding of information makes for a much smoother and more engaging interaction with the design. But, it’s also closely associated with the design psychology principle of chunking.
Chunking is a process where you break down a large amount of information into smaller chunks. This makes it easier to process and remember.
Take phone numbers for example. It’s hard to remember 10 individual digits. But if you chunk those digits into 3 groups of 3 (and a 4), it’s much easier to remember, right?
It’s particularly useful where customers have to use their short-term memory. This can only hold so much information at one time.
Chunking makes it easier for the customer to remember what they need to.
Design psychology suggests there’s an optimum number of chunks of information our short-term memory can hold. Go beyond that and it’s harder to remember the information.
In the past, this optimum number was thought to be 7 (based on an article called the Magical Number Seven plus or minus two, written by psychologist George Miller back in the 1950s).
However, more recent research by Nelson Cowan shows that number is more like 4 (plus or minus 1). Any more than 4 chunks of information and it’s harder to remember information.
That’s partly why 3 is often seen as a good number in design. This comes up in design principles like the rule of thirds and in writing like the rule of three. When you organise information into 3 chunks, you’ve always got a “spare” memory slot if you need to add something later.
Where to use chunking
Use this design psychology principle to organise the information in your designs. We use it in our top menu navigation bar, for example. Count how many high level topics there are in our Resources / Skill guides drop-down menu.
Marketing, creative and e-Commerce.
Group relevant information together so people understand how it’s organised. Limit where you show all the information unless that’s what people want (on your site map, for example).
Chunk content into categories and sub-categories to organise it. This is much better than long lists of un-chunked content.
Look at our shop home page for examples of chunking. Products chunked together by category – T-shirts or hoodies for example. But also, products chunked by the design theme – innovation or Australia, for example.
Chunking makes it easier for customers to find, process and remember information. Use it to help keep customers moving towards the end goal.
Design psychology tip 5 - Recognition over recall
Many marketing goals focus on getting customers to remember your brand. Ideally, you want customers to remember your features and benefits.
But this is rarely what they actually remember. Even the most loyal customers rarely remember features and benefits.
Design psychology suggests they’re most likely to remember that they’ve experienced something before (recognition). But less likely to remember what they experienced (recall).
Generally, the brain does recognition better than it does recall.
We’ve all had that experience where we see a familiar face coming towards us. But we can’t remember where we know them from. That’s recognition over recall.
With recognition, a sensory trigger (like sight, sounds, taste smell or touch) alert you that something’s familiar. But it’s harder to remember where and when you experienced it before. You just know it’s familiar.
But your brain needs to work harder to recall something. It needs to search for where and when that familiar thing happened. It helps if that memory was actively learned in the past. You actively learn a phone number or someone’s name, for example. That makes it easier to recall.
To use this in designs, make sure you include recognisable elements in your design. Try to avoid asking them to recall things. Recognition often comes through repeated exposure which creates familiarity and stronger mental associations. If you want them to recall things, prompt them with elements they’ll recognise.
Where to use recognition over recall
For example, if you want people to learn from your content, use prompts they’ll recognise.
This is why multiple choice questions are easier to answer than open-ended questions. You’re more likely to recognise the answer among 4 choices, than to recall it unprompted from your memory.
We apply this principle on all of our skill guides for example. We use multiple choice quiz questions to reinforce learning such as this one on design principles. It’s easier and quicker to pick the right (most recognisable) answer from 4 choices.
You don’t have to search the memory to recall the answer. (modules are where rows and columns come together in case you were wondering).
Making design elements recognisable is better for the customer. They don’t have to waste effort and can focus their energies on the most important parts of the design.
Conclusion - design psychology
Design psychology helps you improve designs because it helps you connect design elements with existing customer mental associations.
We covered 5 of the most common design psychology principles in this article – entry points, priming, progressive disclosure, chunking and recognition over recall. Using those is a great way to start improving the impact of your designs.
Check out our guide to graphic design principles, or our article on behavioural science to learn more about the connection between psychology and design. Or contact us directly to find out more about any of the ideas in this article. We’re happy to progressively disclose more of what we know.