The Psychology of Design

Paul Schetelich

Lead Designer

Each element used in design influences the message that you’re trying to convey - as well as the actions that users take. That’s why it’s important to understand how each line, color, shape or font has an impact on people, as it could make or break their decision to trust your brand or buy your product.

While it’s certainly worthwhile to have a knack for creativity and out-of-box thinking when entering the design field, it’s equally important to understand the psychology behind the design. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to create an amazing design that doesn’t carry the weight you want it to.

In this post, we are going to take a look at some of the most crucial psychological principles that you should keep in mind when creating your designs.

Color Choice

Probably the most basic element of design is color. Color is associated with thoughts, feelings and emotions, so a lot of research has been conducted to determine which colors go along with which moods.

For instance, blue is calming and instills a sense of trust and strength. Brands like Facebook and LinkedIn use blue to indicate that they are strong, secure networks. On the other hand, red is exciting, passionate and energetic. Coca-Cola, McDonald's, CNN and Lego all use red successfully for these purposes.

HubSpot has a great - and colorful! - infographic on the psychology of colors that you can check out here.

Shapes

Another basic design element that has a huge impact on the delivery of your message is shapes. We use shapes to make sense of the world and better understand how people are feeling and what characteristics they have.

The bubbly, rounded shapes of circles, ovals and ellipses represent unity, friendship and community. Squares and triangles convey a different message: stability, balance and strength. Lines also signify certain characteristics. Vertical lines are believed to be masculine and aggressive, whereas horizontal lines are tranquil and calm.

Mental Models

Mental models are what you would imagine them to be: mental maps that help you understand the experience that your users are going through and how well they match up to real-world basics.

For example, when you think about the folders and files on your computer, they’re probably very similar to the folders and files on your friend’s computer. Or your computer from 5 years ago. Though the visuals might look different, the basic principles of moving from left to right and top to bottom remain. You can learn more about mental models in this article from Princeton University.

Von Restorff Effect

The main gist behind the Von Restorff Effect is that the oddball gets the votes. Of course, you want to be remembered positively, so your goal is not to shock people into remembering you. Rather, it’s to create positive associations between the user and your design.

So how can you be different in a good way? Start by creating meaningful contrasts between your products, especially when listing out similar items. You can use different colors, shapes and textures to bolster the contrast. The purpose is to draw the eyes to a particular spot, even if there are other design elements nearby.

Gestalt Principles

Did you know that there’s such a thing as Gestalt psychology? It’s like an entirely new branch of design psychology that explores how elements are realized in relation to each other. Gestalt principles pay attention to how items are combined together. Let’s look at these principles in more detail.

  • Proximity. When items are placed close to each other, they are seen as a group as opposed to individually.

  • Similarity. Items that appear to be similar are viewed as one object or as a part of a group rather than individually.

  • Closure. When a shape is seen as being a whole even though the object isn’t completely closed.

  • Continuity. This happens when the eyes move fluidly from one item to the next. It’s most common with curved lines.

  • Figure & Ground. When the eyes realize that an object is indeed an object, they automatically separate it from the surrounding area.

You can read more about Gestalt theory in this guide for designers.

Visceral Reactions

How many times have you stumbled across an image or website that you just loved even though you couldn’t put your finger on why. You probably had a visceral reaction, which is basically an instinctive reaction that comes from deep within.

It’s not easy to create visceral reactions because it basically means you get everything right. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for it. Your goal is to create a design that leaves users feeling positive. To be successful, you must learn what types of design elements people like - and what types they don’t.

Dual-Coding Theory

As a designer, you probably already know that the brain processes visual information much faster than text. The dual-coding theory takes things one step further, assuming that using both visual and verbal cues helps the brain learn faster.

When creating your designs, it’s ideal to find a balance between visual messages and verbal messages. By using engaging visuals and supportive text, you can help users recall information later on.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Every decision made in the design sector goes through a cost-benefit analysis. This gives designers an idea of how much benefit is going to be seen for the investment made. If the costs are too high and outweigh the benefits, it’s not worth it. When creating websites, landing pages and lead forms, always think about how much benefit you're going to see from the cost.

Conclusion

The psychology of design cannot be overlooked. It’s just as important as being inventive and original. If you find that your designs aren’t achieving the results that you had hoped for, take a look at the psychology behind your projects. Perhaps a different color scheme, new shapes or principles from Gestalt theory can help you out. After all, it’s not just the way something looks that leaves an impression on users. It’s the way it makes them feel.

About the Author: Paul Schetelich

Since the days of sidewalk chalk and finger paints, Paul has been creatively crafting the art of design. With a B.A. in Graphic Design from Monmouth University and a Masters from the Califano School of Art - Paul quickly moved up the ranks at SEMGeeks from Junior Designer to the Lead Designer. With 4+ years of experience in web design Paul is ready to conquer the digital atmosphere.

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