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The art of understanding people: A designer's secret sauce

Profile photo of Martyn McDermott.

By Martyn McDermott

12 min read

A side on view of a female head. Everything apart from her face is constructed from technical and organic components, illustrating the complex make-up of human behaviours.

Throughout my design career, one question has been asked more frequently than others. "How do you know how to turn a blank canvas into something that looks appealing, enticing, intriguing?". Well, some variation of that question anyway.

A common misconception is that a designer's toolkit is filled only with sophisticated software and an encyclopaedic knowledge of typography, colour theory, and layout. While these elements are essential, there is one skill in particular that I believe outshines the rest and serves as the core of every 'successful' design: an understanding of people powered by unwavering curiosity and a refusal to accept 'normal'.

The designer's mission: breathing life into a brief

To fully grasp the complexity and importance of this skill, it is beneficial to step into the shoes of a designer for a moment.

Imagine you've been handed a brief. It's a page or two of text outlining a project's goals, context, and constraints. Your task is interpreting and bringing that brief to life on a blank canvas. Your mission: to produce visual assets that don't just exist, but that move, inspire, and motivate users to action.

Design for people: The heart of successful design

So, how does understanding people play into this? First and foremost, people are the end-users of whatever a designer creates. Whether it's a poster, a web page, an app, or a product, people will interact with it, form opinions about it, and decide whether it fulfils their needs.

No matter how technically sound or aesthetically pleasing, a design fails if it doesn't connect with its intended audience.

Understanding people involves a detailed comprehension of the human experience, including cultural backgrounds, demographic factors, personal experiences, behaviours, needs, and wants. It requires empathy, the ability to place oneself in another's shoes, to see the world from their viewpoint.

As a designer, it's this empathic understanding that helps you anticipate and cater to user expectations, which can make or break your design's success.

The power of curiosity in design

Now, understanding people isn't a static, one-time learning process; it's fluid, evolving with the ever-changing landscape of human experience. This is where curiosity comes into play.

A designer's curiosity about the world and refusal to accept norms as fixed keeps them in tune with these changes. Staying curious means, they can adapt and refine their designs to align with evolving user expectations by continuously researching, questioning, observing, testing, and exploring.

Consider one of my favourite topics, colour psychology, for example. Certain colours can evoke wildly varying emotions in different cultural contexts. Red can be perceived as a symbol of luck and prosperity in some cultures, while it might signify danger or caution in others. The refusal to accept a 'normal' understanding of colour meaning allows the designer to delve deeper, explore cultural nuances, and make informed decisions that resonate with the audience, not piss them off.

Next, consider the layout and navigation of a website or app. A designer's curiosity pushes them to study how users interact with digital interfaces and understand the mental model's users deploy in different circumstances, enabling them to design more intuitive and user-friendly experiences.

Applying principles such as Fitts's Law (explained later) or visual hierarchy is not just a blind adherence to design theories but a product of understanding and predicting user behaviour. Obviously, we still need to validate our expectations; no matter how empathic, educated or intuitive we are, people always have a way of surprising us designers.

Understanding and curiosity: The foundations of good design

So, back to the question, "how do you know how to make something look appealing, enticing, intriguing?", hopefully, I have helped to show that the answer is not found in the intricacies of the software used or the trendiness of the fonts chosen. It's not just in the designer's creativity or artistic ability. It is rooted in something more profound -- an undying curiosity and empathic understanding of people.

Because, at its core, design isn't just about creating beautiful things; it's about creating beautiful things that work for people. And to hammer the point, to create for people, one must first understand them.

This understanding, fuelled by curiosity and a refusal to accept 'the norm', sets a good designer apart from a great one.

In this sense, the canvas is never truly blank; it teems beneath the surface with the invaluable knowledge of people, shaping and guiding every brushstroke, pixel, and design decision.

In my opinion, understanding human behaviours is the most valuable asset a designer can have. And my team has it in abundance.

Designing with psychology: A guide for aspiring designers

As I explained in the first half of this article. The marriage of psychology - the study of human behaviour - and design principles create intuitive, engaging, and satisfying products and experiences. And I can't state that 'understanding human behaviours is the most valuable asset a designer can possess' without offering guidance to those designers reading this wanting to deepen their understanding of human behaviour.

Psychological principles to inform design

So, here are some general psychological principles that often apply to design to get you started:

Gestalt Principles: Staple learning for any designer

The human brain tends to perceive objects as part of a greater whole and seeks to organise complex images or designs into simple, unified groups. By understanding principles like similarity, proximity, closure, and continuity, you can create designs that naturally guide your users' attention and perception.

Hick's Law: Understanding how humans make choices

Good design seeks to minimise choice overload. This principle posits that the more choices a person has, the longer it takes them to decide. It's crucial to avoid overwhelming your users with too many options. A clean, streamlined design with clear calls to action can improve user engagement and decision-making.

Fitts's Law: Understanding how humans navigate

This law is particularly applicable in digital interface design. It suggests that the time required to move to a target is a function of the target size and distance. In design terms, make interactive elements large enough and positioned so users can easily access them.

Cognitive load: Don't make users think!

Humans have limited mental resources. Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort used in the working memory. Designs should strive to minimise cognitive load to ensure users can easily understand and interact with your product or website. This could mean using simple instructions, intuitive navigation, and familiar design patterns.

Colour psychology: Basically, it's beautiful subliminal witchcraft

Colour theory, one of the core pillars of design, is a powerful tool. In essence, colour theory explores how colours interact and how they can be used to create desired emotional responses, draw attention, and prompt actions. A well-selected colour palette can make a product more appealing, help brand recognition, and even affect purchasing decisions.

A word of caution—become highly attuned to how colours are perceived in different cultural contexts.

Social proof: The power of FOMO

The actions and opinions of others influence people. Incorporating social proof elements in your designs (like reviews, testimonials, or follower counts) can build trust and encourage desired behaviours.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: We need what we need

This theory can be applied to design by ensuring that your design meets the basic needs (accessibility, usability) before moving on to more advanced needs (aesthetic appeal, self-actualisation through personalisation).

Nudge Theory: Positive influence only, please

The Nudge Theory, popularised by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in their book "Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness", is an influential concept in behavioural economics (the study of decision-making and real human behaviour) and behavioural sciences.

The basic principle of Nudge Theory is that, by understanding how people think and make decisions, you can 'nudge' them towards certain behaviours. These nudges are small changes or cues in how choices are presented or framed that can significantly influence people's decisions without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. It's about designing choices in a way that helps users make better decisions.

For example, in a digital context, a simple nudge could be the green check marks next to a password field, indicating its strength and thereby encouraging users to create a stronger password. Nudges work by making the desired action easier, more attractive, or more intuitive. The potential for positive nudges in design is immense, whether in encouraging healthier food choices, promoting energy-saving behaviours, or driving positive habits.

Continuing to engage hearts and minds

Embracing these psychological principles as a starting point can significantly enhance your design's effectiveness, making your products more intuitive and satisfying for the users.

However, remember that psychology is a broad and complex field, and these principles merely scratch the surface. As a designer, make it your mission to delve deeper, question the norms, and always be driven by an unwavering curiosity and empathic understanding of your users. After all, the best designs are the ones that not only catch the eye, but also capture the mind and the heart.


In a world where design is omnipresent, understanding and applying design psychology is essential. As designers, we have the responsibility and the power to shape experiences that can change behaviours, influence decisions, and, ultimately, make the world a better place.

Still want more? How does 50 quick tips sound?

If I whet your appetite with the above and you still need more, I am continuously compiling a list of design psychology tips. Some of which I have included below for you to digest. One day I'll get around to publishing a glossary or scalable resource. :)

  1. People don't read, they scan: Facilitate scanning with clear headings and subheadings. Often, that's all that's read.

  2. Less is more: Simplicity often leads to better usability.

  3. Aesthetic matters: People perceive more aesthetically pleasing designs as more usable.

  4. People crave consistency: Consistent design reduces cognitive load and increases usability.

  5. Fitts' Law: The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target.

  6. Hick's Law: The more options presented, the longer it takes to make a decision.

  7. People prefer symmetry: Symmetrical designs are perceived as more beautiful.

  8. The Zeigarnik effect: People remember unfinished tasks better. This can be utilised to increase user engagement or onboarding.

  9. Social proof: If others are doing it, people are more likely to follow.

  10. Anchoring bias: The first piece of information affects decision-making later.

  11. Reciprocity principle: People feel obligated to give back when they receive something.

  12. Cognitive dissonance: People experience discomfort when holding conflicting beliefs, which they try to minimise.

  13. The power of storytelling: Stories create engagement and help remember information.

  14. Confirmation bias: People favour information that confirms their existing beliefs.

  15. Miller's Law: Most people can keep about seven items in their working memory

  16. The primacy and recency effect: People most remember the first and last items in a series.

  17. People are loss-averse: Framing things as losses can be a strong motivator.

  18. People need feedback: Feedback informs users they're on the right track.

  19. People can't multitask: Design should minimise cognitive load.

  20. People seek pleasure and avoid pain: Make user experiences pleasurable.

  21. The paradox of choice: Too many options can lead to decision paralysis.

  22. Colour influences emotion: Colours can evoke specific feelings and responses.

  23. People recognise patterns: Use familiar patterns in design.

  24. People prefer control: Designs should make users feel in control.

  25. People are motivated by progress: Show users their progress to motivate them.

  26. Affordance: The design of an object should suggest its use.

  27. Familiarity principle: People prefer things they're familiar with.

  28. Emotion influences decisions: Users' emotions affect their interactions with design.

  29. People prefer short lines: Break tasks or information into manageable parts.

  30. People are visual: Visual information is processed faster than text.

  31. Chunking: Break information into small, manageable units or chunks.

  32. Recognition over recall: Recognition is more accessible than recall; guide users with cues.

  33. People create mental models: Users build internal scripts of how things should work.

  34. The law of proximity: People perceive objects close to each other as related.

  35. The Von Restorff effect: Unique or distinctive items are more memorable.

  36. The halo effect: Good performance in one area influences positive perceptions in others.

  37. People are inherently lazy: Design for minimum effort.

  38. People are curious: Utilise curiosity to draw users in.

  39. The scarcity principle: Limited availability can increase an item's perceived value.

  40. Personalisation: Tailored experiences improve user engagement and satisfaction.

  41. Credibility and trust: Design can influence a platform's perceived credibility and trustworthiness.

  42. People are social animals: Consider social influence and interaction in your design.

  43. In-group bias: People tend to favour those who belong to their own group.

  44. People prefer stabilised images: Rapidly moving or blinking images can be uncomfortable.

  45. Context matters: Design needs to fit into the context of use.

  46. People don't want to work: Avoid asking users for information you can gather automatically.

  47. People make mistakes: Design should be forgiving and allow easy corrections.

  48. People like to be guided: Clear instructions, labels, and navigation aid user interaction.

  49. People appreciate transparency: Be clear about data use and processes.

  50. Repetition increases memorability: Repeated exposure to information increases the likelihood of retention.

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