The Psychology Behind Design

As a junior digital designer of any kind, you mostly think of design as the colors, fonts and shapes you use to please the eye of the beholder. What you may not know, however, is that you can use basic psychology in your designs to trick the human mind into doing what you want.

Design is not simply throwing some colors and shapes together and calling it a day – no, every starting designer knows there’s a whole lot more that goes into creating a functional design. In this article, I will lead you through some basic knowledge about the human mind and 3 psychological theories that will improve your work. 

One mind, three brains

First, you should know that the human mind consists of three ‘sub-brains’:

  1. The rational brain
  2. The emotional brain
  3. The primal brain

As the name suggests, the rational brain is used for rational thinking and verbal expression. The emotional brain is where we process our emotions and store our memories. The third and last brain, the primal brain, is responsible for our impulses and the way we process different sensations. This is especially important to remember, for you want to trigger the primal brain in order to activate it with your design.


There are certain triggers you can use to activate the primal brain and ultimately influence the behavior of anyone using or looking at your designs.

  • Visual triggers

The primal brain recognizes humans and animals immediately, especially if their eyes are visible.

  • Contrast

Obvious differences between colors, movements, shapes, and textures activates the primal brain and enables it to make decisions.

  • Emotion

Emotional facial expressions or body language weigh heavier than any rational thought. But even colors can conjure certain emotions within the reptile brain, as can be seen in the chart below.

  • Authority

Someone in a white lab coat telling you to brush your teeth will have a greater impact on the primal brain than your friend in a casual outfit telling you to do so. Including pictures of important people will certainly help trigger the preferred behavior of your target audience.

Psychological theories

If you want to take it a step further, you can look into more ways to stimulate a certain behavior in your target audience with your design. You might already be applying the following theories subconsciously – they are so ingrained into the human mind, that there’s no going around them. However, purposely using these theories to improve your designs will make them even better.

Jakob’s Law

The first theory is Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience, and it is especially important if you design websites or apps. Jakob’s law states that users prefer your website or app to work the same way as all other websites they have visited before (Yablonski, z.d.). Why is this, you wonder? Well, people build expectations around websites they have visited over time and transfer these expectations to websites that are new to them. This means that if your website does not live up to their expectations, they might not visit it again.


Another great design trick is chunking. The APA Dictionary of Psychology (z.d.) defines ‘chunking’ as “the process by which the mind divides large pieces of information into smaller units”, which in turn makes these bits of information easier to remember. This process can also be applied to digital design: to make a large portion of information easier to remember, you can divide it into smaller portions. You can find an example of this on the image below.

Hick’s Law

Lastly, there is Hick’s Law. Hick’s Law states that “the more stimuli to choose from, the longer it takes the user to make a decision on which one to interact with” (Soegaard, 2020). So, the more buttons, images, headlines, or videos you put on your webpage, the longer it takes the user to decide what to click on first. To reduce the time it takes the user to decide, you could present them with less or easier options to choose from. This way the user won’t leave your website and has a better experience while visiting.


As you may have noticed, there are many different ways to trigger the human brain and influence the behavior of your target audience. Use your newly gained knowledge to choose the colors, fonts, and shapes of your next work wisely, and you might become the next big designer.


American Psychology Association. (z.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Geraadpleegd 9 september 2020, van

Hauff, A. (2018, 29 augustus). The Know It All Guide To Color Psychology In Marketing + The Best Hex Chart 70. CoSchedule Blog.

Soegaard, M. (2020, 26 juli). Hick’s Law: Making the choice easier for users. The Interaction Design Foundation.

Yablonski, J. (z.d.). Jakob’s Law | Laws of UX. Laws of UX. Geraadpleegd 9 september 2020, van

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