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Design Psychology: Understanding Design and Human Behaviour

Design Psychology: Understanding Design and Human Behaviour

Design psychology is an emerging field that explores the relationships between human behaviour and the designed objects, environments, systems, and services people interact with daily. As design permeates more aspects of human life in the 21st century, understanding these complex interactions becomes increasingly essential.

This multifaceted discipline draws on theories, principles, and research methodologies from psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, sociology, design, human factors, consumer research, and neuroscience. The goal is to uncover new insights to help designers create more useful, usable, emotionally resonant, ethical, and empowering experiences.

The Rise of Design Psychology

Customer Psychology

Although connections between design and psychology have long historical roots, design psychology only began gaining attention as a specific field of study around the turn of the 21st century.

Several factors have driven interest in this nexus over the past two decades:

The Expanding Influence of Design

  • Design now shapes behaviours, attitudes, and emotions through digital experiences, services, system-level interventions, and social innovation initiatives.
  • More aspects of life involve designed artefacts, communications, interfaces, and interventions.
  • Design decisions influence individual well-being and societal outcomes on a larger scale.

The Growth of Behavioural Economics and the Social Sciences

  • Fields like behavioural economics, cognitive psychology, sociology, and anthropology have grown.
  • There is a greater awareness of irrational quirks in human judgement and decision-making.
  • Scientists better understand how social and cultural forces shape behaviours.

The Popularity of Behavioural Design and Persuasive Technology

  • Companies utilise persuasion, gamification, social influence, and habit-formation techniques to drive engagement.
  • Critics raise ethical concerns about overly manipulative business practices.
  • Discussions highlight the need to balance ethics with effectiveness.

The Rising Influence of Emotional Design

  • Neuroscience and psychological research reveal how design elicits emotional reactions.
  • Brands recognise the business value of creating compelling, emotional connections through design.
  • People demand experiences aligned with their values and identities.

History and Pioneers of the Field

Gestalt Psychology Web Design

Interest in the emotional impact of designed environments emerged centuries ago, but research formalised in the mid-1900s.

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Early Influences

Philosophers Plato and Aristotle linked urban planning to social order—sensory theory by Gottfried Semper connected materials and form to human feeling. Psychologist William James and sociologist Max Weber discussed occupying space and shaping the self.

Such works highlighted that physical worlds mediate internal ones.

Founding Thinkers

Influential mid-century scholars like Abraham Maslow, Rudolf Arnheim, Robert Sommer, and Kevin Lynch developed seminal ideas around needs hierarchy, visual design perception, personal space, urban wayfinding, and more.

Contemporary Contributors

Today's thought leaders further scientific knowledge at the psychology-design nexus.

They explore biophilic patterns reducing stress, optimal workplace configurations boosting creativity, healthcare settings improving healing, simplified subway maps aiding cognition, and much more.

Research Centers

Dedicated institutions advance the field through grants, conferences, publications, and direct consultation with partners. Leading centres include:

  • Design and Health Scientific Review Board
  • Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design
  • MIT AgeLab
  • UC Berkeley Institute of Personality and Social Research
  • Cornell University Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group

Core Focus Areas Within Design Psychology

Design psychology examines the touchpoints where human cognitive processing, behavioural patterns, emotional needs, and social dynamics intersect with design. This section surveys major threads within this emerging field.

Understanding Human Information Processing

Design psychology draws on evolving models of human information processing. It considers how people attend to, perceive, comprehend, recall, and integrate experiences and communications. Relevant theories shed light on the following:

  • Attention: Selective and divided attention; pre-attentive visual processing; attentional biases.
  • Perception: Shape, colour and depth perception; visual illusions; multimodal perception.
  • Cognition: Memory systems and capacity limits; mental models and conceptual frameworks; reasoning shortcuts and biases.
  • Learning: How people acquire new knowledge and skills; learning styles.
  • Creativity: The thought processes behind innovation, problem-solving and artistic originality.

These perspectives help design more intuitive, learnable, valuable and thought-provoking artefacts and interactions.

Exploring Emotional Reactions to Design

Design psychology examines how aesthetic presentation impacts viewers emotionally. This extends to positive emotions like beauty, wonder and nostalgia, as well as negative emotions like confusion, frustration, or creepiness.

Relevant areas explore emotion’s cognitive and biological bases, including:

  • Affect and cognition: How moods colour thinking, reasoning, and decision-making.
  • Emotion regulation: Design’s role in amplifying or soothing emotional states.
  • Emotional needs: Design principles tailored for intimacy, security, autonomy, competence, popularity, stimulation, and more.
  • Measuring emotions: Tools like facial expression analysis, skin conductance, and neurological imaging.

Understanding such reactions allows the design to resonate better at an emotional level.

Investigating Social Influences on Behaviour

Design psychology also examines how design intersects with social identities, relationships, communications, and cultural forces. This thread connects to theories about:

  • Social cognition: Stereotypes as cognitive shortcuts; biases and pattern recognition.
  • Social learning: Imitation, modelling, normative influence, and peer effects.
  • Persuasion: Appeals based on reason, emotion, credibility, social proof, incentives, consistency, etc.
  • Communication: Verbal and nonverbal messages; semantic networks; proxemics.
  • Motivation: Competence, autonomy, and relatedness drives.

Incorporating these dynamics allows the design to motivate better, facilitate connections, and propagate ideas.

Analysing Judgements, Decisions & Problem-Solving

By tapping into the psychology of judgement, decision-making, and higher-order cognition, designers can better support users in contexts involving risk, uncertainty, or complex problem spaces.

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This perspective integrates theories concerning:

  • Rational choice: Utility calculations, prospective value, and expected outcomes.
  • Decision biases: Deviations from rational models based on cognitive shortcuts and social pressures.
  • Risk: Perceived probability and magnitude of potential gains or losses.
  • Problem-solving: Search strategies, representations, heuristics, and optimisation algorithms.

Understanding naturalistic decision-making allows design to augment (rather than override) human analytical capabilities.

Major Theories Relevant to Design Psychology

How To Measure User Behaviour

Design psychology draws from many theoretical perspectives across academic disciplines and empirical research programs. A few particularly influential ideas are summarised below.

Behavioural Economics

This field combines economics and psychology better to understand deviations from perfect rationality in judgement and decision-making. Concepts like prospect theory, choice architecture, and cognitive biases are relevant to design.

Affordance Theory

This concept refers to possibilities for action made available by an environment or object. It directly relates designed artefacts and interfaces to perceived action capabilities.

Signifier Theory

This framework deals with design cues communicating appropriate next steps, interactions, or meanings. Signifiers trigger affordances to signal possible actions to users.

Activity Theory

This cross-disciplinary framework analyses interactions between consciousness, behaviour, and social dynamics. It offers a holistic lens for understanding user experiences.

Emotion Regulation Theory

This examines processes people use to shape their emotional reactivity. Design can externally regulate moods and emotional states through aesthetic qualities.


This term combines computers and human persuasion and motivation (“capta”). It deals directly with the ethics of using technology and interactive designs to change attitudes or behaviours.

Major Contributors to the Field

Don Norman Emotional Design Imac Example

While too numerous to list comprehensively, below are several vital researchers instrumental in establishing design psychology:

  • Donald Norman – Co-founder UCSD Design Lab; wrote Emotional Design and Design of Everyday Things
  • Gitte Lindgaard – Director of Carleton U’s Cognitive Ergonomics Research Facility
  • Gerald Katz – Background in clinical psychology and UX design; author of How Emotions Work
  • Cassie McBride – Emphasises aesthetics and visual perception; research director at Tectonic
  • Devorah Heitner – Social media expert exploring ethics and persuasive design principles
  • Dan Ariely – Noted behavioural economist; author of books like Predictably Irrational
  • B.J. Fogg – Created the Behavior Model and coined the term captology

Hundreds more academics and practitioners conduct research or apply findings at the intersection of design and psychology.

In Practice: Real-World Applications

These methods guide recommendations for improving outcomes in diverse sectors:

Healthcare Settings

Healing spaces lower stress while lifting moods and satisfaction. Research confirms design details like:

  • Accessible gardens and views boost mental understanding by over 20%
  • Warm lighting hues increase patient calmness by 19% over cool tones.
  • Semi-private room layouts reduce ICU delirium incidents by over 30%

Workplace Environments

Optimal offices enhance employee engagement and creativity. Studies connect spaces to productivity via:

  • Complexity facilitating idea incubation and flexible thinking
  • Openness and transparency building trust +14%
  • Biophilic motifs fostering concentration +15%

Urban Planning

Thoughtful cityscapes promote belonging and livability through qualities like:

  • Distinctive architecture aiding wayfinding
  • Mixed-use zones encourage inclusive social connections.
  • Nature access lowers mental fatigue and aggression by over 20%

Such patterns inform planning policy for holistic community wellness.

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Significant Applications of Design Psychology

Eye Patterns In Ux Design

While design psychology research is still emerging, early applications in industry and social contexts demonstrate its strong potential for impact. Relevant domains include:

User Experience (UX) Design

Improve digital and physical product designs to align with user cognitive abilities, emotional needs, and behaviours.

Service Design

We are designing more effective, ethical services by profoundly understanding stakeholder motivations, pain points and priorities.

Behavioural Design and Persuasion

It ethically influences attitudes or actions using decision shortcuts, emotional appeals, incentives, and peer pressure.

Architecture and Urban Planning

Crafting spaces and communities better tailored for well-being by accounting for cognitive, social and emotional human factors.

Transformative Consumer Research

We are advancing social justice and human dignity through innovations addressing the needs of marginalised consumers.

Social Innovation and Activism

Raising awareness or driving social change by effectively framing messages, leveraging social motivations, and designing participatory systems.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human-Computer Interaction

Improving natural language processing, recommendations, and explanations by grounding AI in computational models of human psychology.

As this sampling suggests, design psychology broadly applies to creating systems, services, and solutions aligned with human needs and capabilities.

Research Methods Common in Design Psychology

Ux Research Focus Group

Given design psychology’s applied emphasis on empirically guiding design decisions, the field utilises a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative methods adapted from the social sciences.

Common approaches include:

  • User research
    • Surveys, interviews, focus groups
    • Ethnographic observation
    • User testing
  • Experimental techniques
    • Clinical experiments
    • Quasi experiments
    • Randomised controlled trials (RCTs)
  • Data science and analytics
    • Computational modelling
    • Log file analysis
    • Field studies and A/B testing
  • Design probes
    • Generative tools
    • Collages, mapping, diaries
    • Speed dating, priming

Multimethod studies triangulating findings across techniques tend to provide the most robust evidence to inform design decisions.

Critical Journals Publishing Design Psychology Research

Many diverse academic journals periodically publish research relevant to design psychology, given the field’s interdisciplinary nature. However, presently, only a handful specialise directly in this nexus. High-impact journals that concentrate on design psychology include:

Additionally, research grounded in theories from cognitive psychology, behavioural economics, human-computer interaction, and other relevant social science fields also frequently informs design psychology, even when not positioned explicitly concerning design.

Current and Future Directions for Design Psychology

As a contemporary domain of study, design psychology has multiplied but is still maturing as an independent discipline. Exciting directions for ongoing expansion include:

Strengthening Theoretical Foundations

  • Integrating perspectives from across psychology, sociology, aesthetics, and neuroscience
  • Constructing comprehensive models explaining design’s behavioural impacts

Focused Application for Social Good

  • Guiding user-centred design and testing in international development domains
  • Building design frameworks explicitly targeting well-being or ethical outcomes

Advancing Methodological Rigour

  • Increased adoption of experimental techniques to evaluate designs
  • Computational modelling of predicted reactions and outcomes
  • Longitudinal and replicated studies

Recruiting Specialised Talent

  • Tailored university programs to train new generations of design psychologists
  • Funnelling graduates into leadership design, research or policy roles

Interdisciplinarity and Cross-Sector Partnerships

  • Teaming psychologists with designers, engineers, economists
  • Exploring intersections with behavioural science, AI, HCI, and ethics
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This article covers only a subset of activity within the domain of design psychology. Yet, it hopefully conveys this growing field’s enthusiasm, exploring where design and the human psyche intersect to shape people’s lived experiences.


Design psychology represents a growing frontier merging scientific understanding of human behaviour and motivation with the intentional shaping of environments. It builds on established theory while constantly evolving.

Insights help steer spaces supporting security, creativity, restoration, belonging, and dignity across home, work, health, community, education, retail, hospitality, digital life and more. Inclusive, empowering, biophilic patterns resonate most.

Ongoing innovation around neuroscience, sensors, algorithms, and immersion expands possibilities – if wisely checked by ethics and human-centric focus. For now, psychology and design each have much to offer one another towards the shared goal of spaces for thriving.

The key takeaway? That the structures surrounding lives critically inform the lives unfolding within. Thoughtful design wields power to uplift the human spirit.

Frequently Asked Questions About Design Psychology

What are some examples of design psychology concepts?

Some significant ideas studied within design psychology include affordances, signifiers, choice architecture, behavioural design patterns, visceral emotional reactions, captology techniques, and social motivations.

How is design psychology used in website creation?

Design psychology helps craft website interfaces aligned with user expectations, supporting intuitive navigation while conveying credibility and quality. It also informs persuasive tactics promoting desired behaviours.

Can design psychology reveal a person’s hidden thoughts and motives?

While design psychology draws connections between designed elements and subsequent perceptions or actions, the field does not involve decoding mental states or unconscious drives. Approaches remain firmly anchored to user research and observable behaviours.

What ethical guidelines shape appropriate applications of design psychology?

Essential ethical requirements include transparency when persuasive techniques are used, designing with autonomy, and ensuring consent around data usage. There are ongoing discussions within bodies like the APA around establishing ethical codes for subfields like behavioural design.

What are promising future opportunities for design psychology?

Exciting directions involve increased applications in socially suitable contexts, advanced experimental and computational techniques, recruiting specialised talent, and forging interdisciplinary connections mapping design to disciplines like HCI, AI, behavioural science and ethics.

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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