Being a designer means mixing disciplines: one part visual art, one part business, one part marketing and—whether you’re aware of it or not—one part psychology. The first step in creating a design that really connects with the intended audience is to understand that audience.

What people see and what they feel are two very different things. The first is an aesthetic experience; the latter is a psychological one. Good design necessitates both, so designers need more than a basic understanding of psychology for their work to make a worthwhile impression.

But what are you going to do—put your career on hiatus while you go back to school for 12 years? You don’t need a doctorate to apply psychology to design—just a crash course in the fundamentals. And that’s exactly what this article is about: below, we present 5 psychological principles that are the most useful to graphic design.

1. Pleasing visuals influence decision-making and improve usability

Good designs are more than just a pretty face. A design’s visuals have an enormous impact on the overall impression of a product, and can even go as far as to improve usability through the user’s perception.

A logo featuring a multicolored iris with a hidden image inside
into it logo by Flavia²⁷⁶⁷ for Dan Harrison

Design writer and professor (and ex-psychology student) Don Norman explains that there are two key takeaways from understanding the psychological effects of visuals.

First, visuals are the dominant influence in how we make decisions. It all started with our evolutionary ancestors, who had to make split-second decisions as a matter of life or death. Back then, if you saw tiger stripes, you didn’t have time to sit and process what they meant — you either ran immediately or that was the end of your hereditary line.

This led to a biological predisposition to visuals in making decisions. Split-second glances tell us more than time spent ruminating the logical pros and cons. That’s why something (or someone!) that seems good on paper can feel wrong in actuality, and vice-versa.

For designers, the moral is that you should follow your heart over cold facts and figures of design. Take a page from Google’s book: their logo defies quite a few laws of geometrical symmetry, but the end result just feels more natural than the geometrically perfect one.

Image showing the geometrical discrepancies with the Google logo
As the Google logo shows, geometrically perfect is not exactly perfect. Via CreativeBloq.

Visuals go even deeper, though, to the point where they actually improve usability.

A positive impression on a product or image puts the brain in a relaxed state—the user enjoys using or seeing it—while a negative impression has the opposite effect. That much may be obvious without a psychology degree, but here’s the kicker: a relaxed brain functions more efficiently. In the context of design, this means that the user will be able to learn and operate a system more smoothly.

A study by Japanese researchers Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura backs this up. Their team created two ATMs, both identical in functionality, but one used a pleasing aesthetic display while the other used an unattractive arrangement. When polled, people who used both ATMs claimed the aesthetic ATM worked better, while the other was said to be difficult to use.

Same functionality. Different perception.

2. Too many choices are as bad as not enough

Users want as many choices as possible… until they actually get them. In what is now known as Hick’s law, psychologist William Hick and his research partner Ray Hyman proved that the more options available to a person, the longer it will take them to come to a decision.

A more scientific explanation of “KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid,” Hick’s law reminds designers to include only elements that are necessary. Extra elements that serve no serious purpose will do nothing but tax the user’s mind and weight down the experience.

Proposed logo with too many details
‘Tis hubris to think you can improve on the natural design of a penguin. Via Pinterest.

Hick’s law has become somewhat of a staple for web design, particularly when it comes to limiting the options in menus or interactive elements on a page. But, on a micro-level, it can be equally applied to all visual designs.

For example, the proposed logo (to the right) for Penguin Boards met with a lot of criticism because there are too many competing details: the elaborate font, the aggressive coloring, and the intricacy of a skeletal penguin. Too many details in a standalone image have same effect as too many navigation options in a website.

Winning logo design entry for Functional Penguin
99designs creator Ricky AsamManis cinched Functional Penguin’s logo design contest with a submission of a penguin logo that’s highly functional. Logo by Ricky AsamManis for Functional Penguin.

There, that’s better! The winning submission for Functional Penguin’s logo design contest shows the power of simplicity. It’s not that the design is rudimentary, it’s that each stroke and element is chosen carefully so as not to overburden the observer. Even the font is sans serif.

3. Loss aversion > potential gain

When it comes to framing a product’s selling points, loss aversion beats potential gain.

In 1979, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved their idea that “losses loom larger than corresponding gains,” propped up on the back of the prospect theory. What this means for designers and general marketing professionals is that highlighting how a product helps the user avoid a negative experience will be more impactful than showcasing how it helps them gain a new benefit. Instead of saying “Save $20 by signing up today,” you’d have better results if you wrote, “Avoid a $20 surcharge by signing up today.”

Winning landing page design from 99designs creator smashingbug
Winning landing page design from 99designs creator smashingbug for Remembrance.

The best example lies in the landing page design that clinched the victory for 99designs creator smashingbug, “Never forget where you go” has a much more powerful effect than “remember where you go”—the customer would rather avoid a negative experience (forgetting) than gain a positive one (remembering).

4. Visual communication is a universal language

Of all people, designers know that words aren’t the only way to communicate. But, just like with verbal communication, what you say with visuals depends on how well you speak the language.

Logo contest entry from SpoonLancer.
This logo contest entry from 99designs creator SpoonLancer shows a mastery of shape and color usage, combined for a playful yet effective logo.

A good designer knows the deeper meaning behind visual elements like color, shapes, placement etc. Rounding out a corner or shifting a piece a millimeter to the left can potentially change the entire meaning of the image.

The meaning of such visuals elements are deeply rooted in psychology. For example, again going back to our evolution, the color red is often associated with blood, lending it further associations with emergency, warning and alertness. Whether or not you’ve studied the “hidden” meaning of visuals, your human instincts should subconsciously pick up on what images communicate, even if your waking mind is oblivious.

5. Habit loops and gamification make the user experience fun

While we’re all stuck in the third dimension, web and software designers are creating in the fourth: time. Designing for time may bring about a whole new array of problems, but when done right, it also brings a whole new array of benefits.

One such advantage is the habit loop: integrating a cause-and-effect pattern that motivates users with a reward system. This is a lot easier than it sounds, and the truth is you see it every day.

A paper by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn explains how it works. When you boil it down, a habit loop comprises three main stages:

  • Cue—a recognizable sign that it’s time to initiate the habit
  • Routine—a series of actions responding the the cue; always the same
  • Reward—a prize for completing the routine
Winning contest entry for app design by 99designs creator Joe Borcsa
Integrating the habit loop is especially important for apps, which fit naturally into the habit loop paradigm. Just take a look at the winning work of 99designs creator Joe Borcsa. Logo by Joe Borcsa for Haute Curator.

The easiest example of this is logging into your email account. In this example, the cue is the login screen—seeing this, regular users know immediately what to do. The routine is typing in the username and password, a task we’re so accustomed to, we do it mindlessly. And finally, the reward, access to our emails.

As humans are creatures of habit, the habit loop accounts for most our behavior—even up to 40% of our time, according to the paper.

What this means for designers is that, by integrating the highly-defined steps of the habit loop into usability, you make it easier for users to build their own habit loops with your product. For example, include a visual cue that’s easy to recognize, and offer a reward that’s enough incentive to come back for.

Habit loops are great not just for repeat business, but also for the user experience since it reduces the amount of thinking that goes into using a product. The value of habit loops are most obvious in the rise of the recent gamification trend; all those seemingly superfluous “points” to “unlock” certain features are just cleverly disguised habit loops.

That marks the end of today’s session

::scribbling in notebook:: …And how does this article make you feel?

Design is—and always will be—about people. Understanding how your fellow humans think is the first step in creating designs that appeal to them. Use the above tips as a jumping off point to learn more about how to merge design with predictable human behavior… you may just learn something about yourself along the way.

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