3 Principals of Psychology for Better Design … via Einstein and Elevators

Most graphic designers go through formal education and training (of some description) in order to learn the basic skills they need to have a career in the industry. But, in reality, on graduation, their learning is only just starting.

The debates about which additional skills graphic designers should learn are endless: Should they also learn to code, or to write effective copy, or learn about business management? All skills that are unquestionably valuable – but we would argue that above all the areas that every graphic designer should have a good grounding in are psychology and human behaviour.  We’ve posted before about Aristotle’s thinking on human behaviour motivators (see other articles on here if you are interested) so this post will expand on some other aspects of psychology that are related to design practice.

All humans have a “blueprint” for how we understand and process the world around us. A matrix we use to navigate our world and interactions. Understanding how people process information, make decisions and interact is, we think, a crucial skill for any graphic designer.  Good designers will use key principles from psychology as a framework for their designs – acknowledging how people engage, interact and respond to the designs we present.  Every business person now knows the terms “user experience” and “call to action”. But knowing the terms and knowing how to achieve them are very different things.

Where to start?

Faced with a daunting task one of the biggest challenges is knowing where to start. Which principles from psychology are the most useful? How do these concepts and principles translate in the real world and, more importantly, in our work?  We are the first to acknowledge that we are not psychologists by any stretch of the imagination.  But with over 30 years of personal experience, we’ve seen the value of applied psychology to creating effective communications material, more engaging customer experiences and more effective advertising. We’ve spent time understanding the key principles and applying them to create the most effective work possible for our clients. So here’s our brief overview of some of the most impactive theories from our perspective:

1. HICK’S LAW (with a small nod to Einstein)

One of the primary functions of a graphic designer is to present information in a way that is relatable and understandable for the target audience.  Good communication strives for clarity. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  Clarity and simplicity often go hand-in-hand.

Hick’s Law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number, and complexity, of choices available. So, it’s our job as designers to present that information as clearly and understandably as possible. Focusing on the key points that are relevant to our audience. What do they need to know in order to take the action we desire, be that to: buy our product, give to charity, or find the quickest and safest exit from a building when the fire alarm sounds.

Hick’s law was formulated by psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, in 1952, after examining the relationship between the number of input stimuli and an individual’s reaction time. If you are interested the formula is RT = a + blog2 (n). Thankfully, we don’t need to understand the maths to apply the theory. The concept is clear. The time it takes for users to respond has a direct correlation to the number and complexity of options available.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by options? I’m sure we’ve all known the scenario of not being able to choose which colour of paint is right for our living room? For some people after months of looking at countless colour charts, there’s still no clear decision.  It’s why paint manufacturers started to produce tester-pots. Being able to narrow the selection and see the paint colour in situ gave people more confidence to take action.  Focused in on a smaller selection people then found it made a final decision easier – and bought the paint and did their decorating. Tester pots have become the norm because they help us narrow our options, which directly translates to paint sales.

Hick’s law simply means that a complex interface will result in longer processing time and it is related to a fundamental theory in psychology known as cognitive load.

Cognitive load

Cognitive load refers to the mental processing power being used by our working memory.  Which is very similar to how memory in a computer works.  Our brains, like our computers, have limited processing power. When the amount of information coming in exceeds the space available, cognitive load is incurred. Which results in a drop in performance. Tasks become more difficult to complete, error occurs, details get missed and we get frustrated. (Which usually adds to greater stress which then exasperates the overload!)

So, designers (and any communicators in fact) should aim to make everything as simple as possible.  This neatly brings us onto Miller’s Law


Another key principle is Miller’s Law, which surmises that the average person can only keep 7 items (± 2) in their working memory. Cognitive psychologist, George Miller, published a paper in 1956, sharing his finding on the limits of short-term memory.  Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misinterpretation of this over the years leading to some well-meaning misapplications.

For example, the “magical number seven” has been used to justify unnecessary limitations in many design processes. Most web and user interface designers will have encountered this being cited to limit interface menus to no more than seven items. But it’s not actually a good interpretation of Miller’s Law. A far better way to think of his findings is found in the practice of “chunking”.


Miller’s fascination with short-term memory did not actually focus on the number seven, but rather on the concept of “chunking” information. And on our ability to memorize things accordingly.  When applied to design, chunking can be an incredibly valuable tool. Chunking is the act of visually grouping related information into small, distinct units of information.

When we chunk content in design, we are effectively making it easier to process and understand. Users can scan the content and quickly identify what they are interested in, which is aligned with how we tend to consume – and which appears particularly true with digital content.

The most easily accessible example of chunking can be found with how we format phone numbers. Without chunking, a phone number would be a long string of digits -and if presented as a continuous list of numbers it would increases our difficulty to process and remember. Alternatively, a phone number that has been ‘chunked’ – or formatted into groups – becomes much easier to interpret and memorize. (eg: +442087719108  opposed to +44  20  8771  9108).

Likewise, when faced with a document of solid text our brain immediately starts to object. The “wall of text” will not engage many readers in comparison to well-formatted copy with appropriate paragraphs, headlines, subheads etc.  The visual diversity and formatting helps us to process the information.

Another example of chunking being used effectively in design is within the area of ‘layout’.

Designers use this technique to help users understand underlying relationships and hierarchy of information by grouping content into distinctive focus modules. In information-dense experiences, chunking can be leveraged to provide structure and accessibility to the content. Not only is the result more visually pleasing, but it’s more scannable, accessible and relatable.


Jakob’s Law (short for Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience), states that users spend most of their time on other sites, and they prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.  This is obviously based on internet use but the thinking can be applied to everyday life which I’ll expand on later.

In 2000, usability expert Jakob Nielsen, described the tendency for users to develop an expectation of design patterns based on their cumulative experience. Obviously, if all websites follow the exact same design patterns, that could result in user boredom. But there is value to be found in some familiarity for users. As humans, we inherently look for, recognise and build mental patterns to help us understand and navigate the world around us. This results in the creation of mental models.

Mental models

A mental model is what we think we know about a system, especially about how it works, based on experience. In other words, we use the knowledge we already have from past experiences when encountering and interacting with something new.

Whether we are talking about a website or a car, we form models of how a system works. Then we apply that model to new situations where the system appears similar. Mental models are valuable for designers because we can match our user’s mental model to improve their experience when interacting with our designs. The task of shrinking the gap between our own mental models and those of our users is one of the biggest challenges to designers (and any communicator).

At S2 we use a variety of methods including user interviews, client personas, journey maps, empathy maps, focus groups, ethnography studies (and many more) to understand the way end-users engage and interact with the materials we create.  As a client, it’s not necessary to understand all the processes – but knowing why your designer may be suggesting something and the benefits that can be achieved, is important.  The objective is to gain a deeper insight into how your target audience thinks. Not only the goals and desires of our users but also their pre-existing mental models, and how that applies to the product or experience we are creating.

Let me tell a story as an example of how psychology can affect our behaviour:

The Automatic Elevator Connumdrum

The Automatic Safety Elevator was first patented in 1853 . In 1857 Elisha Otis made the first passenger elevator and in 1874 Alexander Miles added automatic doors. But the general public remained sceptical and, even though there was no actual need for them, elevators continued to have ‘pilots’ or ‘operators’ pushing the buttons well into the 1900s.

Nowadays, we are all very familiar with the modern elevator, but many psychological theories are to be found at use within these small metal boxes, all dealing with different user issues.

The very early elevators were relatively slow – they were steam-powered. People always complained about the speed and so engineers spent many hours trying to make them ever faster.  But user test found that the users’ perception of the speed was much slower than the reality. People were bored and had an exaggerated sense of time because they had nothing to do but stare at the blank wall … and consider their safety, being suspended in the air, in a metal box, attached to a cable!

The answer to that collective existential crisis? Mirrors.  That’s why almost every elevator you step into now has a shiny, reflective interior. People became distracted and were no longer preoccupied with the fear of falling. Humans are inherently self obsessed obviously. In follow-up research, customers commented how much faster the new elevators were even though the speed was exactly the same and the engineering of the elevator had not changed at all.

We also often hear ‘musac’ in elevators – purposefully chosen to help keep us calm and stop our thoughts turning back to being locked in a box and our own mortality. But there is even more psychology at play in this small space.

In 1945, a huge ‘elevators pilots’ strike occurred in the USA and the need to get people to use elevators without a ‘pilot’ became an imperative.  Despite other efforts people still felt uncomfortable using elevators that were fully automated. But why did having a ‘pilot’ pushing the floor selection make any difference?

The issue was not about having an operator but of having someone on hand if anything went wrong.  Adding a few additional buttons was all it took to overcome peoples anxiety.  The Stop, Help and most importantly the Alarm call buttons were added – later came the door-close and door-open buttons too. Once the public felt they had some control and would not be stuck in the elevator without being able to get assistance then they were happy to ride.

Ethical use of these principals

Designers can use psychology to create more intuitive products and experiences. But they must use this knowledge ethically. These techniques can be used to exploit how our minds work and so could be used to creating more addictive experiences, apps and websites.

When was the last time you were on a train, in a waiting room, or on a busy sidewalk and didn’t see someone glued to their smartphone? It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the mobile platforms and social networks that connect us also put a lot of effort into how they can keep us glued to them, and they’re getting better at it every day.

The effects of this addiction are, thankfully, beginning to be acknowledged. From sleep reduction and increased anxiety to a deterioration of social relationships – the race for our attention has created some unintended consequences. The psychological impact of our smartphones has now become a hot topic. Research has highlighted how they have started to change how we form relationships, and indeed, even how we view ourselves.

Is there a solution?

Designers should strive is to create products and experiences that support and align with the goals and well-being of the user. The first step in making ethical design decisions is to acknowledge how the human mind can be exploited.  We must consider much wider metrics, looking beyond simple usage data. Data can deliver a lot of insights, but pure empirical data can not tell us the why. Why users are behaving a certain way or how the product is impacting their lives. We must be receptive and listen to what our users say, and use qualitative research to inform how we evolve our designs.

Like anything else, design and psychology can be used for good or for ill. Being aware of what we do and how it works is the beginning of more effective design materials – but that knowledge carries responsibility too.


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