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


Maguayan: Goddess of the Sea (Illustration)

“Long ago, Maguayan ruled the vast endless ocean.”

Digital Illustration, Photoshop. June 1, 2015. By D. Varron

Long ago, Maguayan ruled the vast, endless ocean.

Long ago, Maguayan ruled the vast, endless ocean.

Social Network for professional use: the pitfalls

Social networking has changed the way we approach employment opportunities

It wasn’t long ago that graphic designers had to carry a print portfolio around when looking for employment. “Snail Mail” was used as a method to send potential employers some samples of portfolio work to give some idea of what the designer had to offer. Nowadays a new set of rules and etiquette help us navigate the often confusing web of social networking and marketing.

Social Networking’s professional pitfalls

Things aren’t like they used to be. Today designers are expected to have some kind of internet presence. Luckily there are many avenues for designers such as Behance and Deviant Art, and a place for motion graphics such as Vimeo and YouTube. Yes, there are so many places to showcase work but there are some things to keep in mind. It’s important to be mindful of what you put on the internet. Not only is work information readily available about you, personal or private information may potentially be available as well.

It is possible that personal info may be viewed by potential employers, and things like political preference and lifestyle choices that would otherwise have been beyond the arena of potential employers is now a part of it. Basically, if you do not filter what you put on the internet, it may cause you issues later on, regardless of your skills as s designer. It’s definitely not fair. but it fair to say that there is information available today that is easily accessed by your social circle as well as employers. Having a solid online presence can have a substantial impact on your career. This has implications on our individuality and the ability to maintain a separate personal life aside from work, but its realistic to be prepared and aware of your online presence. Design is all about communication and is heavily influenced by advances in technology, but using social networking for business purposes is a double-edged sword. It not just designers that should be weary of social media, since all people who use the internet are effected. Any quick news search will display the most current email or social media related scandal.

The ABA Young Lawyers division posted an article on how to prevent the “professional pitfalls of social media” here

Navigating Social Media Pitfalls

Though your portfolio is obviously the showcasing of your Quality and Skills as a designer or artist, its important to remember that professionalism is also an important skill. The way you are portrayed on the internet may not provide the best judge of character, but it definitively influences outside opinion. Your internet presence is am increasingly important part of the larger picture, so make it count.

What inspires me as a designer

This week one of my assignments is to discuss what inspires me as a designer. Its not hard to think about all the many reasons why I love design.

The design field is dynamic and broad reaching, so my inspirations are many. My goal is to design things that are visually interesting. I want to design things that are visually appealing and successful in the way design can convey information in its most simplistic and eye catching form.

It is the challenge of a design project that inspires me. Such as the challenge to create a successful design; something the client is really happy with and something that the customer base appreciates.

All the possibilities of design inspire me. When I see really awesome works such as print design and logos that are seamless and memorable, I aim to reach that level of design skill. The great, vast ocean of possibilities of design is inspirational, like any art form, it is up to the designer-artist to create something, and to be a part of that process, whether it be in the conception, rendering or completion of a project, or being the sole designer for the whole thing is one of the reasons love design.

Inspiration is everywhere, and I am truly inspired to explore the way design blends art and technical skill seamlessly. Seeing that end product is a great feeling.To know that all your hard work paid off makes it all worth it. I enjoy designing and it is the creativity involved, the way art and technology meet and the challenge inherent in the design process that serve to inspire me.

Unity and Contrast in typography

Unity and Contrast

Two important elements of the fundamentals of design are Unity and Contrast. Too much unity and you end up with something lacking attention grabbing appeal. Too much contrast and you may have something too chaotic for comfort. The key to excellent design is in finding a balance of contrast and unity that works well with the message you are conveying.


Unity in typography lets the audience know that sections of type belong together. Body copy, like that in a novel, is usually uniform so that the audience can easily read for long periods without interruption. Unity in this sense, is used so that the audience can focus on the meaning of the words rather then the typography itself.

The simplest type possible, such as Highway Gothic, is best for street signs to make sure the audience understands vital information. Unified type can be used to indicate when specific characters are speaking or even indicate feelings.

Knowledge of typography is important of Advertising, which short form persuasion. Companies use persuasion in the form of type and brand identity. Advertisements much catch attention over the chaos of competing ads via print, television and internet.


Everything that exists appears to have an opposite. Much of our language and even thinking is based on the concept of differentiation, or placing things into dualities. Contrast is a basic part of human perception.

In typography, contrast is used to give the sense that items are different and stand apart. The type can be serifed, italic, bold, and placed next to a line break so that the black type stands out against the white background. Contrast is why the headline is the most important part of any message.

Whatever you are creating, be it painting, logo or print media, visual conflict is an element that will catch the viewers attention.


Balance is the act of creating with the right amount of unity and contrast. Until you have created that balance, its a matter of guess work. That’s why it is o.k. to make mistakes, getting it wrong first until you achieve balance in your design.

Graphic Designers of the 1950’s to 1970’s

Paul Rand
Well known for his timeless and iconic logos. His work illustrates how some logos can withstand the test of time. If you’d like some more insights into Rand’s thoughts on design watch this supplemental video.

Paul Rand Logos

George Lois
George Lois is the mastermind behind a number of timeless advertising campaigns, logo designs, and design concepts. Many of the pieces in this gallery contain supplemental commentary.

George Lois Ad

Herb Lubalin
Herb Lubalin puts an emphasis on concept in his logo work. In addition to his design work, Lubalin is also known for his typefaces, including Avant Garde.

Lubalin Logos

Milton Glaser
Known for the iconic  “I Love NY” logo. A celebrated designer whose work includes logos, magazines, packaging, and more.

Milton Logo

Graphic Design History: Art Nouveau – 20th century

Art Nouveau (French – “New Art”) was a aesthetic of the late 18th century to the early 19th century that questioned the very nature of aesthetics. As art and design moved toward the modern era, Art Nouveau was a truly international style that maintained strong aesthetics despite of industrialization. Artists such as Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are great examples.

Savonnerie De Bagnolet By Alphonse Maria Mucha

Savonnerie De Bagnolet
By Alphonse Maria Mucha

The Japanese Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) design movement was a major influence on the western art world during this time period, and this was a driving influence in Art Nouveau. Ukiyo-e is expressive and organic line art which remained an important design aesthetic in Japan for centuries. Unlike the arts and craft movement, Art Nouveau was not just focused on the small time artist or craftsman. Art Nouveau also translated to everyday objects, furniture and architecture, to stained glass and well known for the poster ads of the era.

Some artists and designers of the time such as the The Glasgow Four  preferred the aesthetics of Geometry to the sometimes heavily floral embellishments of Art Nouveau. The Vienna Secession was another group that experimented with spatial relationships and layout design. This experimental era was the advent of modern design.

KUNISADA (1786-1864)  From the series "The fifty-three stations of the Tôkaidô" (with portraits of actors) - 1852  Signature: Toyokuni

KUNISADA (1786-1864)
From the series “The fifty-three stations of the Tôkaidô” (with portraits of actors) – 1852
Signature: Toyokuni
See Art Nouveau posters at
Check out Japanese wood block printing at

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.

Imagery and type: thoughtful placement

It can be said that great designs stand out because every inch has been carefully crafted. Maybe it was the deliberate and careful use of color, texture, and type in a visual assault from edge to edge. Or maybe the successful layout employed negative space to frame the important parts. Whatever the style, thoughtful placement can create some stunning work.

Here are some designers who combine imagery and type in fantastic ways. Observe how they consider every inch of the page, from the loud attention  grabbing elements to the quiet, subtle background elements.

Paula Scher

Paula Scher designed the Citi logo and is known for her typographic assault style of design.

Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart is known for his ability to deconstruct traditional type and layouts, and create something new and vibrant with his investigative approach.

Louise Fili

Louise Fili is known for the distinct classic feel of her work. Fili uses a generous amount of ornament, texture, and pattern, and leaves nothing unturned in her personally crafted type.

Tadanori Yokoo

Tadanori Yokoo is a design pioneer who greatly influenced the graphic design world. His unique style has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in the realm of poster design.


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).