design fundamentals

The psychology of design

A thorough understanding of the psychology of design is important for any graphic design student. From the way in which the brain interprets what the eye sees, to the biology of the brain and its influence on what we focus on, psychology is as much a part of design as the correct use of color and placement of elements. This knowledge helps designers create user-friendly interfaces and successful infographics, and it is an ever growing and evolving field of study. Here, I look at four key elements of design psychology: attention, comprehension and retention as they relate to design.


The appeal of a design may depend on several factors including the culture of the viewer and the individual themselves. There are certain points to remember about creating graphics with appeal. An article by Connie Malamed titled “How to improve the appeal of your graphics” talks about the importance of “fluency” as an element of appeal. The article describes “processing fluency” and the ease at which a viewer is able to process information as being tied into the appeal of a design. Studies conducted on information processing have found that the typography itself can have a strong effect on how a person perceives the information. If a easy to read font is used, this increases the appeal of the information contained. Some aspects of visual fluency which effect appeal are symmetry, visual clarity, high figure ground contrast, and the idea that less information is more. These nuances of visuals have a strong effect on the appeal of a design, which in turn effect the ability of a viewer to process the information. (Malamed) Typography is very important because it can make or break a design. There may be times when a highly decorative or messy font matches the feel of the design, but Weinschenk points out that complex fonts that are hard to read can “interfere with pattern recognition and slow down reading.” (Weinschenk, p. 39)


In Susan M. Weinschenk’s book 100 things every designer needs to know about people, it states that “Attention is selective” (Weinschenk, p. 97). This means that people can be easily distracted, but they are also able to focus in on something even when distracting stimuli is present. The designer needs to be able to grab the attention of people in a world full of distractions. To grab viewers attention, it is important to know the context and purpose of the design and elements. Even though a viewer will likely focus on large photos and strong, bright colors, while engaged in an exploratory web search, if they are working on a task such as data input, they will likely try and focus on this task rather then other distractions. This tells us that it is not always easy to grab someones attention, and it is important to know the environment that the design will be in.


Comprehension is also an important factor of design. One aspect to consider is that when it comes to processing information, it is better to have smaller bits of information that the brain can handle, rather then large amounts of information at once. By breaking information down into “bite size” bits, designers can avoid the mistake of providing too much information to the viewer. (Weinschenk, p.62). Some other strategies to use to help with comprehension are put the information into story form, which people respond positively to and use many pictures rather then wordy descriptions or instructions.


When all is said and done, after the viewer has seen a design, how can you be certain that they have retained the information, or that they have retained any information at all? It is important to know that an “overload” of information has a negative effect on retention. Designers should be aware of the amount of data that their design contains, and how to provide it in a manner that supports retention. Just as smaller bits of information are better for comprehension, it also is the same for retention. Visual is not the only method of receiving information. If the designer has an opportunity to employ the other senses such as sound or linguistics, it might be a good way to reach a larger audience. The same techniques that help students prepare for an exam can also be an asset for a designer. The key is to think outside the box and find new and innovative ways of working with the information you are tasked to disseminate.

Though one would be hard pressed to acknowledge every facet of a viewers visual and mental experience upon seeing a design, by keeping in mind the aspects of appeal, attention, comprehension and retention, a designer will be better prepared to create successful and effective projects with precision. As a designer, it may be impossible to incorporate every lesson learned about the minutia of human experience into the elements of a design, but it is still possible to be aware of, and create with the knowledge that certain design conventions should be embraced, and some avoided, depending on the purpose and goal of the design itself.


Weinschenk, S. (2011). 100 things every designer needs to know about people. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

5 Tips on How to Retain Information. (2015). Retrieved August 9, 2015, from

Malamed, C. (n.d.). How to Improve the Appeal of Your Graphics. Retrieved August 9, 2015, from


Color Contrast

Color Contrast

Controlling contrast is a good method for establishing Hierarchy and dominance in a layout. When looking at the color spectrum on a black background, the eyes are drawn first to the colors with the highest luminosity, yellow and cyan. You might notice the dark blue later because it contrasts less with the black background.

If you then compare the same color spectrum surrounded by white, the lighter colors such as cyan and yellow do not stand out as much because they contrast less from the white background.

By understanding contrast, you can have a greater control over the impact that the layout elements such as color, font and imagery, have on your design.

You can use this tool to check the contrast of your chosen foreground and background colors. It will tell you if your chosen colors pass or fail.

Fundamental principles of design

Here are some fundamental principles of design when creating a layout:

Dominance. Your main focal point. Once you know your focal point, consider hierarchy.

Hierarchy. With your focal point selected, think about how you will want to guide the viewer’s eyes through the layout. Good hierarchy is often achieved with scale (sizing things differently). Once you have this decided, consider space.

Space. Space is all about how things are positioned on the page. This includes their physical location, as well as the space between things. Items that are spaced close together are seen as related/similar to each other. For instance, related information might do well placed together. Once you have spacing decided, consider balance.

Balance. There are two kinds of balance a good design can have: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical layouts are very clean and tidy, but can also be perceived as stiff. Asymmetrical layouts may not seem balanced at first, but a smart variety of scale, space, and color can achieve a much more dynamic sense of balance than a symmetrical layout. As you balance items in your layout, consider gestalt.

Gestalt. I have discussed gestalt in a previous post. Gestalt is set of theories that explain how visuals are perceived as wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. Simply put, gestalt isn’t just about the things on the page, but about perception and how the eye moves and makes connections. As you employ gestalt, consider unity.

  • Unity. Perhaps the most important of these seven principles, unity makes the elements of a design feel like they belong together. This can be through spatial relationships (alignment, gestalt), rhythm (hierarchy, flow), and/or repetition (texture, color).
  • Color. Last, but certainly not least, color is a vital part of any design. Whether your design includes a wide spectrum of colors, or is created with pensive grayscale, color communicates the emotions present in a design. As you incorporate color into your poster, consider not just the hue, but the tone (light/dark) and intensity (saturation/desaturation).