Skip to content

5 design psychology tips for easier processing and remembering

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

Share This Post

Why read this? : We show how design psychology helps you understand how people process and remember designs. Learn how to use 5 common design psychology principles to improve your designs’ impact. Read this to learn how to create more accessible and memorable designs.

New designers start with basic skills like colour and typography and basic principles like contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.

But to be an expert designer, you have to master more advanced design skills and principles. 

One of these areas is design psychology which is our focus this week.

It applies what we know about how our brains work to how we experience and interact with designs.

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

For example, what makes us pay attention to or ignore a design? What makes us want to interact with it? Which factors make a design more (or less) memorable?

This article explores key insights from design psychology which help you make it more likely your designs will get into customers’ heads. Like behavioural science but for design, it helps you work out why customers do the things they do so you can design better solutions for them. You make it easier for customers to understand and remember your design.

Design psychology - sources used

There are many studies and books about design psychology. This article mainly draws from :-

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 to your office or shop.
  • 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

Arrow shaped sign on a brick wall saying entry

Designs often have 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 more evaluation, we move to the next element. And then the next, and so on. But if that first element doesn’t hit the mark, we shift our focus elsewhere. 

So, the entry point has to both capture attention and persuade customers to keep going with the rest of the design. That’s why designers spend lots of time on it. They load it with the strongest and most relevant design ideas. If you don’t hook customers early, you lose them. 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. It’s often the first thing new customers see so must make a good first impression. 

Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think suggests you use a set of basic questions to put yourself in the shoes of a new visitor to your site :-

  • 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 you can easily answer these, it’s a good sign the page is well-designed. These are the “entry point” thoughts new visitors have when they first open the page. They work as a checklist to ensure your website entry point helps customers 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.

We’ve even got a “start here” button. What could be clearer than that? Plus, there are easy links to the main sections like our marketing guides, our coaching and consulting services and our shop.

Screengrab of Three-brains home page - headline says "Ready to raise your game? Outthink, outplay and outgrow competitors with three-brains"

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 wisely. 

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. Orange suggests enthusiasm and excitement. 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 similarly. 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). 

Colour psychology - an applied use of colour in marketing

(Priming also works in non-design interactions. e.g. See the story of the salesman who “forgot” his sales materials in our behavioural science article).

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 customers 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 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 how 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 small part of the design. But, if the positioning is 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 is another area which often uses priming to create mental associations. Say you want to associate your brand with “nature”.

That has associations with specific coloursgreen for example – and images – trees, plants, animals. You’d use more traditional serif or script typography.

Now instead, imagine you want the association to be “science”. Your design choices to prime that would be different, right?

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.

A white carton of water with with word "hello" on it, next to an opened tin of green paint and a paint brush

Design psychology tip 3 - Progressive disclosure

Next, we look at how to use design psychology to influence ongoing 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 a time. You drip-feed it out. The audience gets information 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 necessary. Then, put what’s left in a logical sequential order which the audience can work through bit by bit. Then share only what’s 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 from 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 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 cover over 30 different topics, for example. But we don’t put all those on the home page or the initial navigation bar. Instead, they’re progressively disclosed.

Clicking on marketing takes you to 6 broad topics to explore. You only get the details of the sub-topics by clicking on the broad topic link.

Our online shop also uses progressive disclosure.

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 checkout.

You only get all the details to check at the end of the process. It’s shared as and when the customer needs it. It’s progressively disclosed.

Three-brains Spreadshirt shop shopping cart pate shows Mens Premium Tank T-shirt selected to buy for $48.48 including $16.99 delivery

Design Psychology Tip 4 - Chunking

This drip-feed of information makes for a 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 2 groups of 3 and a group of 4, it’s much easier to remember, right? 

That’s chunking.

It’s useful when 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. 

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Design psychology suggests there’s an optimum number of chunks of information our short-term memory can hold. Going beyond that makes it 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. 

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. For example, we use it in our top menu navigation bar. There are only 3 high-level topics in our Resources / Skill guides drop-down menu. Marketing, creative and e-Commerce. That’s chunking. 

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. 

Three-brains shop category selection - Two choices - Browse by design themes or browse by product type

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 remember. Even 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)

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

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, sound, taste smell or touch) alerts you 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.

For example, we apply this principle to all our skill guides. 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 improve designs as it connects design elements with existing mental associations. Customers recognise these associations early. They make it easier to process and remember your design.   

We covered 5 of the most common design psychology principles in this article – entry points, priming, progressive disclosure, chunking and recognition over recall. Using these improves your design impact.

Check out our design principles guide, or our behavioural science article to learn more about the connection between psychology and design. Or drop us a line to find out more about any of the ideas in this article. We’re happy to progressively disclose more of what we know.

Photo Credits

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

Entry : Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Green packaging : Photo by Boxed Water Is Better on Unsplash 

Woman looking at phone : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Share this content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest blog posts

Subscribe to get Three-Brains updates