5 design psychology tips for easier processing and remembering

Old fashioned typewriter with the words design psychology on a white piece of paper

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Snapshot : Design psychology helps you understand what happens in the minds of your audience when they experience a design. We’ve pulled together 5 of the most frequently used design psychology principles, and in this article give tips and examples of where and how you can use them. These 5 tips focus primarily on making it easier for customers to process and remember your designs. 

Like any skill, graphic design has a foundation level of knowledge you need to learn to achieve basic competency.

You can’t really design without learning the basics of colour, typography and basic design principles like contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.

But once you master these foundational areas, what’s next?

What else do you need to learn to make your designs better and improve your skills?

Old fashioned typewriter with the words design psychology on a white piece of paper

For us, one of the most interesting advanced learning areas in design is design psychology. This applies psychological thinking to designs, to understand how different audiences interact with designs. How they notice designs? How do they mentally process designs? And what makes some designs more memorable than others?

From a marketing point of view, there’s clear business benefits to being able to answer these questions. You use creativity and designs across all aspects of your brand activation from advertising to e-Commerce

To succeed in marketing you need to understand customers and what they think, feel and do. And of course, as we covered in our recent article on behavioural science, you want to understand why customers do the things they do. 

Knowing why, helps you create and design solutions to customer problems. So, by understanding design psychology more, it helps you create and design better solutions for customers. 

Design psychology – sources of information

There are lots of published academic papers about design psychology, but we’re grateful that there’s also a number of great books which collate these different studies into helpful guides, stories and examples. 

The main books we use for ideas and inspiration about design psychology are :-

Design psychology tip 1 - Entry points

In design psychology, the entry point refers to where a consumer “enters” a design. It’s the first impression and experience of the design for the audience. 

This could be a physical entry point (like the entrance to a shop or office) or a more symbolic entry point (like the home page of your website).

This entry point is highly influential on how the audience perceives your design. This is due to the design psychology principle called the serial position effect

Arrow shaped sign on a brick wall saying entry

When exposed to multiple bits of information – say a list of things to remember, we pay most attention to what’s first in the list. 

We’re more likely to remember that first thing, and it also influences how we perceive the items on the list that follow. (known as the priming effect which we’ll come to shortly). 

This means first impressions at the entry point can make or break your design. They influence how the audience notices your design, how the mentally process it and whether they’ll remember it. 

Pretty important to make a good impression then, isn’t it?

It’s so important, you should spend a disproportionate amount of time in any design work getting that first impression right. Do that and the audience will be more likely to act on your design. Get it wrong, and you potentially lose the customer forever.

It’s why headline writing and design is so important in the advertising and publishing world for example. If the headline doesn’t grab your attention, you won’t look at what comes next. 

Same principle applies to designing the entry point. Grab people’s attention so they want to find out more. 

Where to use entry points

An obvious place “entry point” where customers might first interact with your design is your website home page.  It’s the first thing a new customer will see, so you need to make sure it’s clear and simple. 

In the Steve Krug book, he recommends putting yourself in the shoes of a new visitor who knows nothing about you. New visitors typically ask one or more of these six key questions :-

Where am I?; Where should I begin?; What are the most important things on this page?; Where did they put …?;Why did it call it that?; Is that an ad or part of the site?

Use these as a checklist to make sure your home page design is clear, simple and helps the customer orient themselves and navigate to what they need. 

Make the “entry” feel welcoming and inclusive so the visitor feels confident and comfortable exploring your site without becoming confused or lost. 

Our home page entry point example 

We used this entry point principle when we set up the top of our home page

Note how it tells customers they’ve landed in the right place with our brand name and logo. Note how it gives customers easy and quick ways to explore the site. 

We include a “start here” for new customers, and use one word links to key sections on the site like marketing, our coaching and consulting services or our shop.

Scroll down and there’s easy access to search functionality on both the header navigation and right below the main navigation panel on the home page. 

What we don’t do is distract customers or make them feel confused or uncomfortable. No pop-ups. No sign-ups. And no distracting pushy sales messages on the home page. 

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Entry points are where you do that, and as we’re about to cover, priming is how you do that. 

Design psychology tip 2 – Priming

Priming is a psychological concept which states that before you consciously consider a new stimulus (such as a design), your brain is already subconsciously making connections from their memory. Your subconscious brain works far faster and handles far more data than your conscious one ever can. 

So, priming basically means arranging your design to positively tap into known subconscious connections, so when the audience consciously look at it, they’ll consider it more positively because of these existing connections. 

We shared an example in our recent article on behavioural science. A salesman primed a “trust” association during a sales call at a customers home by deliberately “forgetting” his sales pack. He then asked to go out and get it from the car. 

When he came back in, he’d obviously gone in and out of the clients house unaccompanied. This primed an association with trust (letting someone in and out of your house unaccompanied) and he found this psychological prompt caused more customers to trust him, resulting in more customers and more sales.

To use priming effects in your designs, you need to consider what your objectives are. What is it you want the audience to think, feel or do? When you know this, you can then look at what design elements you can use to link your design to that objective.

Where to use priming

One priming example we often see is on online retailer websites. How these stores display the default order of their product listings often helps you work out their intended positioning.

For example, sites who want to promote a high quality, premium image, tend to display their highest priced, most premium products first. This “primes” the shopper to think “high quality”. All the other products and prices that follow feel attached to this “quality” association. (this is also sometimes called the anchoring effect on pricing). 

However, for sites who are more mainstream and value driven, it’s better to start with the lowest priced and most value-driven products. This “primes” the reader to think “great value” and all the other prices then feel attached to this “value” association. 

You can use this priming design psychology principle in all sorts of other ways to help build and reinforce your brand identity.

For example, use it to associate your brand with specific attitudes and behaviours

If your product makes people feel confident for example, show confident people in the design. If your product makes people think, show people thinking. Even something as simple as your brand name or logo help “prime” people to think certain things about your brand. Take three-brains for example. We aim to deliver “smart thinking” for our customers. Having “brains” in our name helps customers make that association with smart thinking. 

Priming on packaging example

Another example where priming is often used is in packaging design. Your packaging can use priming design cues to trigger the brand associations you want with customers. 

Let’s say your brand is nature based for example.

Your packaging “prime” nature by using coloursgreen for example – and images – trees, plants, animals – that people associate with nature.

You’d also use softer or more old-fashioned typography, say script or serif fonts.

But if your product is more scientific based you’d use quite different priming design cues. 

You’d use different colours – like blue for example – and different images – diagrams, illustrations and symbols – that people associate with science. You use harder and more modern typography such as sans serif fonts. 

(see also our articles on colour psychology and typography psychology for how these design elements connect to design psychology). 

Of course, these priming elements only work if they trigger mental associations that are already there for the customer. They nudge them in the direction of what they need from you. 

Priming the entry point with the right cues makes sure they start their journey heading in the right direction. 

Design psychology tip 3 – Progressive disclosure

Which brings us to how you can use design psychology to help customers move along the journey. This is the concept of progressive disclosure

Progressive disclosure works on the principle that our brains work best when they only have to handle necessary information. Too much noise, too much distracting information and we switch off. Our brains become less efficient when overloaded with inputs. Reducing information complexity to make it easier to process is a fundamental part of design and progressive disclosure helps you do that.

Information as and when the customer needs it

The progressive disclosure principle recommends you only provide information as and when the customer needs it. Omit or hide anything that’s unnecessary or not needed until later in the journey. 

Keep the the information elements of your design as simple as possible and lead people to where they need to go next. When you see “learn more” links or drop down buttons on a web-site, these are examples of progressive disclosure. Your aim is to keep your designs clear and uncluttered to make it easier for the audience to process. 

On your website for example, don’t show everything unless you have to (like on a site map for example). Show only a few key elements and let people click their way through to find what they need. 

Avoid clicks that feel unnecessary clicks, but customers will generally be OK clicking as long as they feel they are progressing towards their goal. Clicking is easier than thinking, so customers would generally rather click than be forced to think about what to do next. 

Where to use progressive disclosure

You can use progressive disclosure to help you structure and lay out content and sections on your website to help customers navigate.

Our marketing section covers over 30 different topics for example, but we don’t share all of these up front. 

Click on marketing and you get a choice of six broad marketing topics to explore. Click on one of those topics and you usually get another choice of related sub-topics to explore within that overall broad topic.

We progressively disclose the content areas.

As an another example, if you browse through our online shop, each product page contains product and price information. That’s the entry point for customers and it shares the information they need at the start of their shop. 

But when they decides to buy, they’ll have more questions. They’ll want to know about delivery times and charges. These are not necessary when the shopper is browsing, but are progressively disclosed as the shopper goes to check-out. 

It’s a common online shopping experience, but one that’s rooted in design psychology. 

Design Psychology Tip 4 – Chunking

Another way to use design psychology to help customers along their journey is the concept of chunking.

Chunking relates to how people process information in the designs they see. When there’s a lot of information to process or remember, it’s easier to manage that information by breaking it down into smaller chunks. 

In particular, short-term working memory has limited capacity. We can only give attention to a limited amount of inputs any a time. Chunking directs people what to pay attention to and what to remember. If your design requires people to remember things, chunking those things helps them do that.

Think about your phone number, for example. Probably about 10 digits long right?

But say it to yourself in your head, and you probably remember the numbers in chunks for 3 or 4 chunks of numbers together, rather than 10 individual numbers.. 

It’s a useful communication tool, especially as design psychology shows us that there’s a maximum number of chunks, after which it becomes harder for people to remember. 

It used to be thought the maximum was 7 based on an article by psychologist George Miller back in the 1950s (known as the Magical Number Seven plus or minus two).

However, more recent research by Nelson Cowan has shown that the magic maximum number in working memory is more like 4 (plus or minus one). 

Beyond 4 items, it gets progressively harder to process and remember information. 

In fact, in many design areas, three is seen as the optimum number of chunks as it becomes easy to process and remember. This comes up in design principles like the rule of thirds and in writing like the rule of 3

If you aim for 3 items in a design, then the magical memory number of 4 always means you’ve got a “spare” slot if you need to add something later. 

Where to use chunking

Apply this principle from design psychology to plan how much information to present in your designs. Look back at the topline navigation bar we mentioned in the previous section for example, and count how many high level topics we cover. 

Three. 

Marketing, creative and e-Commerce. 

That’s chunking. 

Let people find the information they need as they go. Resist blurting everything out at once unless it’s somewhere people expect it. (like on your site map). 

Organised lists with categories and sub-categories are more helpful than long lists of un-organised content. 

On our shop home page for example, we chunk similar items together by category – either by the type of product – T-shirt, hoodies for example – or the overall theme of the design – innovation, Australia – for example. 

The easier customers find it to choose the information they receive when they need it, the more engaging the customer experience. This engagement keeps them moving towards the goal of your design. 

Design psychology tip 5 - Recognition over recall

We mention in many of our marketing articles the important of customers remembering your brand. The brand choice funnel of trust, awareness, consideration, trial and loyalty for example doesn’t work for customers who don’t remember you. 

But, here’s where it gets interesting from a design and marketing point of view.

Because what customers remember is rarely what you think they’d remember. They rarely remember all the features and benefits although these help shape their buying decision. 

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

What they do tend to remember is what they experienced before. And this means there’s a lot of evidence in design psychology that shows people are much better at recognition than recall. 

This is because recognition is a much more straightforward process than recall. 

To recognise a memory, your brain just needs to remember that it has previously experience something – usually sensory like sight, sounds, smell or touch. You see it again, and your brain tells you it’s familiar. 

But to recall a memory, you first need to learn it. You need to actively pull that out without the stimulus of recognition. That’s much more harder work for our poor brains. 

You need to actively commit it to memory and then use and apply it to make it stick. You need to remember where and when you experienced it, what the context was and if it’s relevant. Those are much more complex mental process than merely recognising you’ve experienced something before. 

So, include design elements that will be recognisable to your audience. Design elements that have become familiar though repeated exposure and so have consistent and strong mental associations. There’s a lot of evidence in design psychology that shows people in general prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. 

You want your designs to feel familiar.

Where to use recognition over recall

So for example, on our skill guides and during coaching sessions where we have less time, we often use multiple choice quiz questions to reinforce key learnings such as this one on design principles.

We ask people to pick an answer from familiar choices (recognise the answer) rather than pull one from memory (recall the answer). 

Though we also use open questions in our coaching, we use those more to reflect on “how” something’s been down.

To learn “what” an answer is, multiple choice questions work much better. You get through more questions, and they help reinforce the answers quicker. 

It’s easier and quicker to pick the right answer from four choices than to search your memory for the answer. 

Making things easier and quicker for customers who interact with your design makes it more likely they’ll have a positive experience.

That’s clearly going to help you achieve your objectives with that group of customers. 

Conclusion

Design psychology helps improve your designs because it helps you better to understand what’s going on in the minds of your audience. 

While the principles won’t influence every customer, you can be confident that these principles will help your designs influence more customers. 

The 5 design psychology principles we covered here – entry points, priming, progressive disclosure, chunking and recognition over recall – are only the tip of the iceberg of what you can learn to improve these designs. But they are among 5 of the easiest principles to apply, and they’ll make your designs work much better with your audience when you use them.

Check out our guide to graphic design principles or our article on behavioural science to lean more about where design and psychology connect. Or contact us, if we can help you learn more about this topic.

Photo Credits

Design Psychology (adapted) : Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Entry : Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

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