graphic design and human behaviour - books

Untangling design and human behaviour: trickier than it sounds

The relationship between graphic design and human behaviour has always been a complex one. Even back in 1988, Jorge Frascara – a renowned authority on communication design from the University of Alberta – was arguing that graphic design is not a fine art but a social science.  Every good design process includes the study of the behaviour of individuals and of society at large in order to communicate.  A good design doesn’t just appeal to a consumer on a visual level: it engages with them so that they keep using it, form emotional bonds with it and tell their friends about it.

So how do you try to untangle such a complicated partnership? Donald Norman’s 2005 book “Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things” divides the way that people react to design into three different levels.

The first is the visceral level. This is the first impression someone has of a design and is a purely instinctive reaction to it. A good visceral design leaves you feeling something and wanting to interact with the design again, so it relies on those immediate top-level cues: colour, sound, composition, photography. Responses such as blue being calming, yellow being optimistic, and green suggesting the environment are visceral. So is seeing photography of someone smiling and feeling more positive, or seeing a page of small, crowded text compared to something less busy.

The next level is the behavioural level, which relates to the user experience. A user will subconsciously judge how easily your design helps them achieve their goals. This is what makes effective communication so important. Something that grabs a consumer’s attention will still fail if it doesn’t tell them what they need to know or help them do what they want to do. An obvious example is whether the design of an app or a website makes it easy to know how to use it or not. And this doesn’t just apply to digital design — point of sale, editorial and packaging all need effective communication so that people stay engaged.

Finally, the “highest” level is the reflective level. Here, the user takes what they have learned about a design and interprets it through their own thoughts and feelings, which leaves a lasting impression. This is when a successful design will lead a user to reach the conclusions you want them to reach; when the product or design is relatable to them, helps them with a problem they have and is worth remembering and talking about.

natwest poster
Credit: Giles Priscott/NatWest


As a very loose example, think of a bank’s branding. You probably have something in your head — white space mixed with one strong colour (maybe blue or purple), along with photography of people looking happy and confident. What the bank wants to communicate is that it is trustworthy and reliable, so it uses its colour and photography for that visceral reaction. It makes its website and print designs clean, professional and easy to use. Perhaps they tweak their design to appeal to a certain demographic. If these design choices do their job effectively, it will create a lasting impression with the customer that matches what the bank wants to say about themselves.

Author: Laura Siragher is a Senior Designer at CreativeRace. Her design experience spans 12 years, from freelance to in-house to agency, covering both design and illustration.