The psychology of brilliant digital design, Part I

Symbols are deep-rooted in our minds

What research reveals about compelling design

There’s an impressive body of psychological research on effective design principles. Results point to universal elements of human perception, ingrained in our DNA, that strongly affect what we recognize and respond to favorably. — For example, we relate best to classic symbols (e.g., Apple iPhone icons depicting email as an envelope; time represented by an analog clock; a cogwheel representing settings) because these now relatively archaic symbols are so deep-rooted in our minds’ ‘images vocabulary.’ Another example–black and white graphics resonate more powerfully in depicting the past when contrasted with color graphics representing the present. Makes intuitive sense. Yes?

Since the 1970s, marketing research has revealed a common icon/graphics vocabulary that most of us recognize as representing different categories of objects/actions (e.g., a sofa/couch icon is easily recognized as a symbol for furniture; a lamp not so much). Refining that visual vocabulary has included a renewed emphasis on classic standards, e.g., the now standard flat design, characterized by simplicity and clarity.

Flat design was a reaction against what many considered the overly ornate/complex 90s/early 2000s skeuomorphism. It included textures, luminous colors, dimensionality and other details that made digital icons/graphics look more like photographic representations of objects.

Linguistics and visual thinking


The key take-away here is that ‘language’ is not limited to verbal and written communication. In fact, all written language originated in pictorial representations of physical objects (e.g., hieroglyphics, cuneiform and early Chinese pictograms). Visual symbols/imagery are intrinsic to human nature. They inform our creative imaginations, which is embedded not only in visual perception, but hearing and touch, as well.

Speech and visual symbols (e.g., diagrams, maps and graphics) are complementary, strongly interdependent means by which we exchange information. It’s imperative that online platforms integrate these parallel modes of communication in a way that is both scientific and artful. Your online platforms need to embody the best of both.

Probable future design trends

None of this, however, addresses cultural/regional differences. Though visual symbols often have universal currency, each culture has its own variations. Given this, it’s likely that in the future, flat design will evolve by respecting cultural/regional differences with the reintroduction of carefully selected, small elements of skeuomorphism.

Another aspect of cultural variability emerges from how language modifies perception itself. For example, Arctic Inuit and Sami cultures have 180-300 distinctive nouns to describe snow. Many linguists theorize that having a more extensive vocabulary for different kinds or frozen precipitation result in greater perceptual acuity/sensitivity. This can be captured in varied visual symbols for snow that wouldn’t make sense to English speakers not sensitized by their environments to see such distinctions. Similarly, languages like Spanish and Italian identify objects as feminine/masculine. Visual symbols, then, are more relatable for people speaking Romance languages with design variations that integrate that awareness.

In Part II of this article, I’ll describe additional design principles that help establish a stronger connection with your customers–often more complex and varied than businesses understand.


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