Designer means to mix different disciplines: A part fine art, a part company, a part marketing and – whether you are aware of it or not – a part psychology. The first step in creating a design that connects to the target audience is to understand the target audience.

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

But what can you do? Take a career break to go back to school for 12 years? You don’t need a doctorate to apply psychology to design – just a crash course to the basics. And that’s exactly what this article is about: We show you 5 psychological principles that are most useful for graphic design.

1. Appealing images influence decision making and improve user-friendliness

Good designs are more than just pretty to look at. The appearance of a design has an enormous impact on the overall impression of a product and can even help to improve usability from the user’s point of view.

Design expert and professor (and former psychology student) Don Norman explains that understanding the psychological effects of images offers two important insights.

First, images have the greatest impact on how we make decisions. This comes from our evolutionary ancestors who had to make life and death decisions in fractions of a second. If you saw tiger stripes back then, you didn’t have time to sit around and think about what they meant – you either ran immediately or it was the end of your line.

This led to a biological predisposition for visual decisions. A glimpse tells us more than the time we spend pondering the pros and cons. That’s why something that seems good on paper can actually feel wrong and vice versa.

For designers, the moral is that you should always follow your heart instead of cold facts and design rules. Let’s cut ourselves a slice of Google: Your logo doesn’t comply with some laws of geometric design, but the end result simply feels more natural than geometrically perfect logos.

Images go even deeper to a point where they actually improve usability.

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

A study by Japanese researchers Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura confirms this. Their team built two ATMs, both identical in functionality, but one had a vivid display, the other did not. In one survey, people who used both machines said that the ATM with the vivid display worked better, while the other was harder to use.

The same functionality. Different perception.

2 Too little choice is as bad as too much.

Users want as much choice as possible…until they actually have it. Psychologist William Hick and his research partner Ray Hyman proved that the more choices a person has, the longer it takes to make a decision. This is now known as Hicks’ Law.

Hicks’ law reminds designers only to insert elements that are necessary. Additional elements that have no serious purpose do nothing more than strain the user’s head and worsen the experience.

Hicks’s law has become something of a guideline for web design, especially when it comes to limiting options in menus or interactive elements. But on a micro level it can be applied equally to all visual designs.

The proposed logo (right) for Penguin Boards was much criticized because there are too many competing details: the elaborate font, the aggressive coloring, and the complexity of the penguin skeleton. Too many details in a single image have the same effect as too many navigation options on a website.

There, that’s better! The winning entry to the Logo Design Competition for Functional Penguins shows the power of simplicity. It’s not that the design is rudimentary, but every stroke and every element is carefully chosen so as not to overwhelm the viewer. Even the font is sans serif.

3. Loss aversion beats potential profit

When it comes to formulating sales arguments for a product, loss aversion beats potential profit.

In 1979, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved their notion that “losses are more important than corresponding profits,” based on the Prospect Theory. What this means for designers and marketing professionals is that it is more effective to highlight how a product can help avoid negative experiences rather than show what new benefits it brings. Instead of saying “Save 20 Euros by signing up today”, it would be better to write “Avoid a surcharge of 20 Euros by signing up today”.

4. Visual communication is a universal language

Designers know best that words are not the only way to communicate. But just like verbal communication, what you say in pictures depends on how well you speak the language.
A good designer knows the deeper meaning behind visual elements such as color, shape, placement, etc. Rounding a corner or moving a part a millimeter to the left can potentially change the overall meaning of the image.

The meaning of these visual elements is deeply rooted in psychology. Back to our evolution again, the best example is the color red, which is often associated with blood, leading to further associations with emergency, warning and alertness. Whether you have studied the “hidden” meaning of images or not, your human instinct should subconsciously notice what images communicate, even if your waking mind is not aware of it.

5. Habitual loops and gamification make the user experience entertaining

While we’re all stuck in the third dimension, web and software designers work in the fourth: time. Designing for time may bring a lot of new problems, but if done right, it also brings a lot of benefits.

One of these advantages is the habitual loop: to incorporate a cause-effect pattern that motivates the user with a reward system. This is much easier than it sounds and the truth is that you see it every day.

John M. Romaine

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