Psychology in design: 9 principles designers should know

We've all heard of color psychology, but did you know that the connection between design and psychology extends deeper than color? Keep reading to discover nine fundamental psychology principles that will make you a better designer.

Stephanie Corrigan
Psychology in design: 9 principles designers should know

9 psychology concepts for better design

In no particular order, here are nine psychology concepts that all designers should know. Understanding these concepts will make you both a better designer and business owner. Let's dive in!

1. Color psychology

Color psychology is probably the first concept that comes to mind for most designers when thinking of how psychology plays a role in design. It goes without saying that color selection and usage are vital skills in all fields of design. Colors have symbolic meanings and aesthetic qualities. But at a deeper level, colors also have the ability to evoke certain feelings and emotions. For instance, yellow is a cheerful color, whereas blue feels somber.

In design, color psychology can be used strategically to elicit certain subconscious feelings. For instance, if you want to grab someone's attention on a website, a bright red button would do the trick. However, context is an important consideration as well. In one context, a red design element could signify danger; in another, it could indicate urgency and thus incite action.

Common color associations. Image source: Wikimedia
Common color associations. Image source: Wikimedia

Color psychology is an extensive and interesting field that is well worth studying if you want to learn how to design better brands, websites, and graphics that help your clients reach their goals.

Click here to read more about the psychology of color and how it applies to web design.

2. Hick's Law

Hick's Law is a fundamental principle of User Experience (UX) design. The law states that the more choices a person faces, the longer it takes them to make a decision. Like many psychological concepts, Hick's Law makes sense intuitively; I think we can all agree that it's harder to choose between 15 different flavors of ice cream as opposed to five flavors. But what does it have to do with design?

It's all about the user experience. Time is our most valuable resource; when visiting a business's website, we need to find what we're looking for and make decisions as quickly as possible. If there are too many calls to action or menu pages or services to choose from, the experience becomes overwhelming. At the extreme, it's downright frustrating.

Dovetail’s homepage has one simple call-to-action: Get in touch.
Dovetail’s homepage has one simple call-to-action: Get in touch.

The takeaway here is simple: when it comes to decision-making in design, simplification is almost always the answer.

3. Gestalt Principles

If you've ever taken an introductory psychology class, the term "gestalt" may ring a bell. Gestalt psychology is a theory of visual perception that originated in the early 1900s. Gestalt is actually a German word that refers to how things are put together. In essence, gestalt principles inform how our brains piece together and organize the many visual cues that we're constantly bombarded with.

There are six principles that form gestalt theory:

  • Similarity is the tendency to group together elements that look similar to each other in size, shape, or color.
  • Continuation tells us that the human eye always attempts to follow the smoothest path.
  • Closure is the idea that we fill in the missing elements of an image to make it whole in our minds (think: negative space).
  • Proximity helps us determine which elements belong together based on their relative distances from each other.
  • Figure/ground is how we distinguish between foreground and background elements.
  • Symmetry and order, also known as prägnanz, means that we tend to look at ambiguous shapes in the most simplistic way possible.

As a designer, you're likely already using gestalt principles in your work without even realizing it. For instance, closure is commonly used in logo design. Plus, similarity and proximity are key components of layout design. Understanding these principles is a great way to improve the quality of your design work in accordance with people's innate visual perception.

Check out this post for a refresher on visual design elements and principles.

4. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is a term that refers to people's tendency to seek out and recall information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. (American politics, anyone?) In the design world, confirmation bias is another psychological principle that plays a role in UX and web design. It's also commonly used in ad campaigns.

Using confirmation bias to inform your design strategy can be a really effective way to engage your design's target audience. People like to feel heard and understood. If you're trying to convince someone to make a decision, like signing up for a free trial, there will be much less resistance if your messaging confirms, rather than contradicts, their beliefs. In order for this to work, you have to first understand what it is that your audience actually believes and wants. The best way to gather this information is through market research, such as surveys or interviews.

Buffy’s main headline is an example of confirmation bias in web design.
Buffy’s main headline is an example of confirmation bias in web design.

Although confirmation bias is effective, it does come with some ethical considerations. We don't want to just play with people's beliefs in order to convince them to buy something they don't need. Authenticity goes a long way.

5. Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is the tendency for an individual to rely too heavily on the first piece of information given on a topic. To give an all-too-familiar example, let's say you're on a sales call with a potential design client, and you offer a quote of $5000 for the project. If the potential client previously spoke to another designer who quoted $500, your offer is going to sound outrageous. On the flip side, if the previous designer quoted $10,000, your offer is going to sound like a steal, all thanks to anchoring bias.

Unfortunately, we have no control over whom our potential clients speak to and in what order. However, there are some useful ways to use anchoring bias in design. For starters, we can make sure that the first piece of information someone receives about a brand or product gives a favorable impression. This is part of why high-quality brand and web design is so valuable--first impressions matter. If a brand is initially perceived as premium, a premium pricing model doesn't feel unexpected.

Another way to use anchoring bias in design is to present the most expensive option first, and then follow it up with a mid-tier option, followed by the least expensive option. Compared to the first option, the mid-tier option will seem affordable and the third option cheap. If you're a web designer, try using anchoring bias in your next sales page design for a client. It's sure to impress!

Kajabi uses anchoring bias to help sell their most popular plan.
Kajabi uses anchoring bias to help sell their most popular plan.

6. Visual hierarchy

Visual hierarchy is a principle of psychology and design that refers to when elements are arranged in order of their importance. Understanding this principle is crucial for creating a good user experience; without visual hierarchy, a design can look jumbled and disorienting.

The concept of visual hierarchy in design is fairly simple, yet can be a bit tricky in practice. Essentially, the goal of visual hierarchy is to guide the user's eye through a design in a logical order. For example, think of a fantasy book cover. The first thing that typically stands out and draws you in is the background image. Next, we turn our attention to the title, which is the largest text in the design. And finally, we look at the name of the author, typically shown in smaller print at the bottom.

Visual hierarchy is important in web design as well. In fact, poor visual hierarchy can result in missed opportunities for a business if potential customers can't figure out how to navigate its website. Plus, even to the untrained eye, a lack of visual hierarchy can indicate a lack of professionalism. For more on visual hierarchy in web design, check out Ran Segall's video below:

Click here to read an in-depth guide on using visual hierarchy in web design.

7. Miller's Law

Miller's Law is another UX design principle that borrows from psychology. The theory, offered by George Miller back in the '50s, states that the average person can only keep 7 +/- 2 items in their working memory. Working memory refers to our (limited) capacity to hold information in our memory for the purposes of reasoning and decision-making.

It's important to note that Miller's Law is more of a theory than a law. But it does have some practical implications for designers. In essence, it's further confirmation of the idea that keeping things simple, i.e. seven points or less, reduces cognitive load and thus creates a better user experience. This is likely also why many blog posts, like this one, include between five and nine main points; the information is easier for the reader to retain.

In web design, we see Miller's Law in action most commonly in the main navigation. In general, it's considered best practice to limit the number of menu options to no more than seven. Offering too many choices to the user is a recipe for decision fatigue (see #2; Hick's Law).

Example of a navigation design with seven items, including two icons (source).
Example of a navigation design with seven items, including two icons (source).

8. Social proof

Social proof is used by all kinds of businesses in all kinds of contexts and for good reason: it just works. As a psychological principle, social proof is a term that explains why people look to other people's actions in order to inform their own behavior. As you may imagine, a phenomenon like social proof can be a gold mine for businesses.

We see social proof in all forms of print and digital design used to promote a service or product. Different types of social proof include:

  • Customer testimonials (written and video)
  • Customer reviews on platforms like Yelp, Google, Trustpilot, etc.
  • Partnership or media outlet logos
  • Customer statistics like acquisition and retention
  • Social media likes and shares

An example of multiple forms of social proof on Byte’s homepage.
An example of multiple forms of social proof on Byte’s homepage.

Think about it: when was the last time you bought a product or service without first reading reviews? Personally, I can't even recall it. Social proof is powerful because it gives potential customers a sense of trust and security about making a purchase--even if this "proof" comes from complete strangers. Finding ways to seamlessly incorporate social proof in your designs is a great skill for designers.

9. Priming

In psychology, priming refers to when the introduction of one stimulus influences a person's response to a subsequent stimulus. It's a subtle yet powerful effect that has led to many insights into our understanding of memory and behavior.

Like the other psychology concepts on this list, priming can be used in design to subtly guide a user's actions. One way priming comes into play in web design is through the familiarity principle. This principle tells us that people tend to prefer things to look or feel familiar to them. For example, when people land on a website, they have a few expectations based on their previous browsing experiences: the company logo in the top left corner, the navigation in the top right, and the main headline somewhere in the center of the screen. We all want our designs to look unique, but going too far against the grain in web design can cause confusion due to priming.

Another way to use priming in design ties in with a concept we discussed when we reviewed confirmation bias. Using your customer's real words and phrases in your messaging and copy is a great way to prime them to trust in your brand.

To get Ran Segall’s take on using psychology principles in web design, check out his video from the Flux YouTube channel below:

How to use psychology principles in your freelance design business

Hopefully, this post inspired you to think about how psychology applies to both your design work as well as how you run your freelance business. Many of the concepts shared here, like social proof, anchoring bias, and priming, can be used to your advantage in your marketing and sales strategies.

To learn more about how to build a successful freelance design business, check out our course, The 6-Figure Freelancer. In this course, you'll uncover a step-by-step roadmap to building a profitable business doing what you love. It covers niching, messaging, marketing, sales, management, and everything in between. Click here to explore the course content and check out our social proof (wink wink)!