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A blog about branding, marketing, and design, mostly through the lens of practical psychology, intended to be a resource to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Unless otherwise noted, all articles are written by Nyla Smith, owner of n-Vision Designs. {Subscribe to the RSS feed here: RSS}

The Role of Psychology in Design

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What role does psychology play in design? A big one. You don't have to be a student of Freud to understand how basic psychological principles, when applied to design, can have a measurable impact.

This morning I woke up angry. Like, really angry. Why? I had dreamt that I'd just bought a small plate of breakfast food for an exorbitant price ($19 to be exact), only to have a strange man run by and snatch the food off my plate, leaving me with a single slice of bacon. In my dream I went on a full-on rampage, yelling at some guy who I thought took it (who denied it and called me crazy). Then, blinded with rage, I screamed at the top of my lungs, "I paid 19 dollars for a lousy piece of bacon?!" (then I took a bite) "AND COLD BACON AT THAT!!"  And that is the precise moment in time when I woke up, heart pounding and adrenaline rushing.

So.... weird, right? Reflecting on where on earth THAT came from, I realized...

  1. The previous night, we'd ordered dinner, and I had a fleeting thought that "this was out of budget." ==> dreamland translation: $19 for tiny plate of food.
  2. A few days ago I had watched a TV show featuring a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder who had a "break" and was completely freaking out on people. ==> dreamland translation: man who called me crazy after I went off on him.
  3. I'd recently had a brief exchange with old high school friend on Facebook. ==> dreamland translation: she showed up in my dream.
  4. Earlier in the week, I was in the process of drafting blog posts about protecting intellectual property ==> dreamland translation: a thief stealing from me.
  5. I don't know where the bacon came from.  ==> dreamland translation: why NOT bacon?

Somehow, in my deepest of sleep, all of these non-related experiences co-mingled into a dream that made me wake up angry enough to fight someone. (Good thing my husband was already out of bed!)

Why do I share this with you? Not so that you'll be concerned about my mental well-being. :-) But because it's a testament to the complexity of the computers inside our heads. I'm amazed at how our brains work. I'm intrigued by it. And that's a great quality for a graphic / web designer to have. Psychology should actually inform most of what we (designers) do. Once you get past the skills and creativity, you have to put that to work in a way that will be effective. How do we know what will be effective? Well, we don't — not always and not exactly. But there are psychological principles that can help generally predict how people will react due to what we know — and what we can measure — about how our brains process information. Whether it's conversion optimization of a website, deciding a color scheme for a poster, determining how many options to display on your e-commerce homepage, selecting the best stock photo for your rack card, or designing with enough white space, psychology always comes into play.

I will flesh this out a bit more in future posts.  In the meantime, my crazy dream should remind you of two things:

  1. Not everything we do makes sense (bacon, anyone?). 
    While we like to believe we are rational creatures, we are largely driven by emotion, deeply ingrained impulses, social cues, and stuff swimming in our subconscious. Side note: There is a danger for designers, advertisers, marketers to try to use this knowledge to coerce and manipulate unethically. We designers have a lot of power — the power to influence, to guide actions, to form impressions, to compel people to do something. We must use it wisely and ethically.
  2. Our brains strive to make order out of disorder. 
    To make sense of the chaos, we look to Gestalt principles, which attempt to explain the way our brains process everything that's thrown at it.  For example, when objects are in close proximity, the brain decides they are part of a group, whether or not they're actually related. When we are overloaded with stimuli, the brain must choose what to focus on. In design, this is why we find that simple is usually better (did you know that white space is your friend?).

There is so much more that I can touch on — psychology is an integral part of the design process and deserves to be explored further. So... more to come! For now, I'm going to go make myself breakfast.

(Yes, with bacon.)

 

:-)

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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