8 Powerful Psychology Principles Behind Great Product Design

You need more than luck to design and sell popular products.

After all, most successful products help to solve a problem for people who use those products.

Ultimately, great design is about understanding people and their pain points.

Products get inside the heads of consumers in surprising ways, and product designers have taken advantage of this for decades.

Whether it’s a mop you use to clean your floor or a digital experience that is as ephemeral as it is engaging, psychological cues are everywhere.

Companies like Swiffer, Amazon, and Ford use psychology to make their products better and more attractive to consumers because visual design directly influences consumers’ perception of brand quality and value.

You can do the same.

The creation of the Swiffer broom and mop system came out of extensive use of design psychology and user needs.How can you compete with large, multinational corporations with huge budgets and design teams?

It all starts with marketing psychology – understanding how people think.

By understanding the emotions, human behaviors, and people’s motivations, you can significantly impact the success of the products you design and sell.

The crowdspring team (over 220,000 graphic and product designers) has helped the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, small businesses, and even big Brands design products for many different industries. We’ve worked with the likes of LG, Barilla, Philips and the world’s best agencies to design innovative products and product packaging, for a tiny fraction of the cost those companies and agencies would otherwise pay (not to mention a fraction of the time such design would normally take).

Here’s what we’ve learned along the way, to help you design great products: if you understand the science of how people process information, make decisions and take action, you can create more effective (and more successful) products.

The good news is that you don’t have to have a degree in psychology to apply brain-based design principles into your products.

Here are 8 proven, powerful ways you can incorporate psychology to increase engagement and design better products.

Getting to know you

As we move through the world, our brains are inundated with information. We constantly try to make sense of the world and respond in kind.

Although you probably think that you’re in control of your actions, it’s often input that arrives on a subconscious level that pushes us along.

Modern psychology has shown that a lot of our decisions actually originate in our “old brain;” the part of our brain that kept us alive and honed our instincts to recognize what was dangerous, what was safe, and what was desired.

Many people call this our “lizard” brain.

We bring all of our past experiences and memories with us as we go through our day, and products should take this into account.

We learn to expect things to be a certain way.

We uncover things that tickle the reward and pleasure centers of our brain and go back for more.

And we often want a product to be so well-designed and in touch with our needs that we actually forget we’re using it.

This is one reason why many consider Amazon’s Echo (Alexa) to be the best smart speaker in the market (compared to Google Home and other competitors).

Get to know how people think, what makes them feel, and what hopes and fears they have.

Design is ultimately about making choices, and good design subtly (or not so subtly) guides people to the “right” choice; that is, the choice we want them to take.

Visceral reactions

Remember the last time you developed a “gut feeling” about something or someone? Or the time when you fell in love with a product and weren’t quite sure why?

These are all thanks to visceral reactions: reactions that come from our instincts rather than our intellect.

Visceral reactions:

  • Are part of nature. They are wired into all of us and are consistent across a culture or group.
  • Are dominated by how something looks.
  • Are the proverbial “first impression.”
  • Are all about the immediate emotional impact something has on us.

We form opinions quickly and rarely change those opinions. For example, as we wrote in Why Good Design Is More Important Than Ever for Your Business:

People have a very short attention span. In fact, according to a Princeton University study, snap judgments count. The study found after seeing a face for only 1/10th of a second people formed opinions about that person. Judgments were made on attractiveness, likeability, and trustworthiness, and prolonged exposure to that face just reinforced the initial impression.

The same goes for websites. Three studies found that a mere 50 milliseconds were all people needed to form an opinion about a website. Google performed similar testing and found an even slimmer margin: a speedy 17 to 50 milliseconds were all people needed to decide how they felt about a website.

The results show that both visual complexity and prototypicality play crucial roles in the process of forming an aesthetic judgment. It happens within incredibly short time frames between 17 and 50 milliseconds. By comparison, the average blink of an eye takes 100 to 400 milliseconds.

There are many things that contribute to visceral reactions.

For example, science has shown that we are disposed to think that things we find beautiful are better, or easier to use. In an earlier article, we explained why this happens:

Often when consumers are faced with a decision between things with similar features or benefits, they go with the one that they either recognize or that has a more pleasing design. Smashing Magazine’s Steven Bradley explained it well:

Human beings have an attractiveness bias; we perceive beautiful things as being better, regardless of whether they actually are better. All else being equal, we prefer beautiful things, and we believe beautiful things function better. As in nature, function can follow form.

A List Apart’s Stephen Anderson demonstrates this attractiveness bias well with a simple button example:

(Image credit: A List Apart)

Cognitively speaking, both of these are obviously buttons. Neither button is ‘wrong’ as in our previous example. However, research into attention, persuasion, choice, happiness, learning, and other similar topics suggests that the more attractive button is likely to be more usable by most people.

Use well-established design principles when creating brand assets, websites, or anything else that your customers see. Creating attractive experiences will go a long way to help your business stand out.

The result is that identical products (such as bottled water) are not seen as identical by customers.

What is it about identical products with different product packaging that attracts or repels us?

When it comes to bottled water, nearly everyone sells a commodity product. But, the shape of the bottle, the color of the label, and other small factors make us think that some bottled water products are better than others.

That certain je ne sais pas that draws us to a product often originates as part of a visceral reaction.

Studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of consumers have purchased a product they had never even heard of because of how it looks – and the visceral reaction it prompts.

There are many different elements that contribute to visceral reactions. Key ones include color, shape, and imagery.


As we wrote previously,

In a widely-cited study called “The Impact of Color on Marketing,” research found that people make a subconscious judgment about products within the first 90 seconds of seeing it. The majority of these people evaluate these products on color alone: almost 85% of consumers cite color as the main reason they buy a certain product, and 80% of people believe color increases brand recognition.

Some common color associations are:

  • Red: Associated with passion, warmth, excitement, aggression, and love.
  • Blue: Associated with intelligence, trust, professionalism, and calm.
  • Yellow: Associated with confidence, friendliness, youthful exuberance, and creativity.
  • Green: Associated with nature, money, newness, and peace.
  • Black: Associated with sophistication, authority, elegance, and luxury.
  • White: Associated with purity, innocence, and cleanliness.

Research has found that deferring to consumer’s feelings about color appropriateness in relation to your product is more important than the individual color choice itself.

That means that choosing a color that people positively link to your product is more important than the color itself at face value – you’ll want to think twice about choosing black for a child’s toy, for example, simply because it’s your favorite color.


The Lysol product line is a good example of using many different shapes to differentiate each product.

In fact, color plays a very important role not just in products, but also in your company’s brand identity. From your company’s logo to your business cards, website, and marketing materials – your prospects and clients are constantly evaluating your brand.


As with color, people associate different shapes with a variety of emotions and other qualities.

Our subconscious makes associations between specific characteristics and certain shapes, which makes it important to choose the perfect shape/association for your product.

Valerie Folkes, in “The Effect of Package Shape on Consumers’ Judgement of Product Volume: Attention as a Mental Contaminant”, found that unusual shapes cause consumers to estimate the quality of the product as higher than the actual value.

Now you know why expensive perfume is nearly always packaged in exotically shaped bottles.

A good example of how interesting shape choice can influence customer decisions is the Toblerone candies. The triangle shape of the Toblerone bar is dramatically different than other more traditional chocolate bars, and so customers are increasingly drawn to it.

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Brands can use shape to enhance their brand identity, which is an important function for any design.

Also important is how the right shape can add additional taste to a product by identifying the associations linked to different shapes.

  • Angular designs are generally regarded as more masculine and powerful than curved ones. For example, beer brand Hasseröder increased its masculine target consumer group by changing its bottle to a pentagon-shape.
  • Curved shapes are routinely associated with femininity, unity and romance – think of every heart shaped box of chocolates you’ve bought your valentine.
  • Food taste feels more intense if it’s packaged in a square container as opposed to round packaging.
  • Unusual packaging shapes cause consumers to overestimate the product quantity.

Make sure that the shape of your product harnesses the right associations to your brand and the experience you’re trying to provide.


Imagery is critical for any product’s design. That’s why product packaging is so important.

As we noted in 4 Psychology-Based Design Tips for Eye-Catching Packaging Design:

Megan Sullivan, in her article “The Psychology of Product Packaging,” points out:

We all want to believe that consumers make decisions on products and services strictly based on merit, with the best one winning. In spite of that hope, psychologists and retailers agree that in many cases this just isn’t true. Quality aside, sometimes the flashier, prettier or sexier product wins the day.

So what does this mean for retailers and product manufacturers? What it means is that creating a terrific product is only part of the formula for sales success. Packaging it perfectly, complete with eye-catching graphics and colors, is just as important to your financial success.

Science confirms that people are drawn to great product packaging:

A 2013 study reported that,

The appeal of product packaging has the potential to trigger impulsive buying even for consumers with no intention to make a purchase.

That’s pretty darn compelling. The study revealed three more pieces of impressive evidence in support of the power of packaging design:

  1. Attractive packaging triggered more intense activity in areas of the brain associated with impulsivity than neutral packaging.
  2. Unattractive and attractive packaging lead to less activity in areas of the brain responsible for reflective thought than neutral packaging.
  3. Attractive packaging triggered reward responses in the brain whereas unattractive packaging triggered areas associated with negative emotion.

In other words, attractive packaging design motivates people to make impulsive choices, bypasses reflective thought and leaves the purchaser with a feeling of having been rewarded. That’s a powerful impact.

For most products, displaying what’s inside is an obvious way to incorporate imagery into the way a product is presented to customers.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that small changes in how a product is presented can be more impactful than you might think. Here are three examples:

  • Vertical stripes evoke a more luxurious experience.
  • Food packaging displays that are pictured as full – say, a box with a picture of a bowl of cherries teeming at the brim – encourage feelings of hunger and motivate people to purchase a product.
  • Images can mentally link to things not necessarily directly related to your product. If you purchase a fabric softener with a big fuzzy bear on the bottle, the connotation is one of soft, gentle touch. Milk cartons with cows grazing in an open field reassure customers that the milk is healthy and humanely farmed.

For more about product packaging, we recommend you read 7 Important Packaging Design Trends and Biggest Product Packaging Design Trends in 2018.

Gestalt theory

German psychologists in the 1920s came up with Gestalt theory to describe how our brains perceive items visually.

As we previously discussed, Gestalt (which means “unified whole”) demonstrates ways that people group items together visually when different principles are used.

They are:

  • Proximity – The Gestalt principle of proximity says that we recognize objects that are close to each other as being part of a group. This principle is integrated into design as a powerful way to help create visual order.
  • Similarity – The principle of similarity is exactly what you think it would be: objects that are similar are seen together as part of a group.
  • Closure – Closure plays with the idea that our minds are eager to complete whatever it is that we see. There are plenty of companies that use this principle to create dynamic imagery out of very little. A famous example of closure in effect is the FedEx logo, which uses the space between the E and the X to create an arrow. Possibly you’ve never noticed this before – but once you see it, there’s no forgetting it.
  • Continuity – Continuity is all about alignment and direction – how items are arranged in a line to continue beyond where the items end. By placing items in a row, designers can coax the viewer’s eye along the row and beyond, which is a powerful way to draw attention. The viewer’s eye continues in the same direction until it sees another object.
  • Connection – Element connectedness states that items connected by a visual element (such as a box or line) are considered to be a group.
  • Figure and Ground – Figure-ground describes how our minds try to find what part of an image is the figure (or subject) and which part is the ground (or background). When used in design, figure-ground creates visual tension, excitement, and interest.

We may think we’re in charge of our own decisions, but science proves it’s not so straightforward.

Cognitive bias

It turns out that we’re not as in control of our choices as we thought.

There are many different forces at play that can influence, hinder, and distort how we perceive things and how we make decisions.

Scientists know these things as cognitive biases. They tend to operate on a subconscious level, and there are a lot of them.

Our propensity to only listen to things that support our preconceptions? That’s called confirmation bias.

How we decide to ignore damaging or negative information is appropriately called the ostrich effect.

Our habit of focusing on the most recognizable features of a person or concept? That’s known as salience.

Understanding how cognitive biases affect our decision-making is an important skill, for two important reasons.

  1. Knowing how people’s thinking can be prejudiced towards certain patterns can companies and designers create more effective, more engaging products. They can also help avoid the pitfalls that can arise from these invisible persuaders.
  2. Understanding cognitive biases helps us avoid making bad decisions. They force us to slow down our thought processes and evaluate why we’re choosing one thing over another,  or why we’re pursuing a specific course of action.

There is a ton of information out there about cognitive biases, and it’s worth spending some time reading up about them. Not only will understanding more about these subconscious forces help you make better products; it’ll help you make more informed decisions.

Social networks are all about changing our behavior through carefully designed experiences.

Behavioral design

Behavioral design concerns itself with creating experiences that change behavior.

You can see evidence of behavioral design everywhere, especially on your mobile phone and the web.

As we mentioned, design is ultimately about guiding and informing choice, and changing how a person acts is key to how many of our most popular products work.

The basics of behavioral design are connected to the concept of triggers.

In order for a behavior to occur, it needs to be triggered by something.

If there is enough motivation and skill or ability, the person then performs the behavior.

This is called the Fogg Behavior Model. It is the principle behind countless products and services.

In fact, this behavior triggering is what behooves us to use social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, dating apps like OK Cupid, and the vast number of “free” mobile games with built-in purchases.

All of these aim to make their products as “sticky” as possible. They are designed to make you come back, again and again, to see what your friends posted, or if someone liked your last photo, or if today is the day you finally get past that infuriating level of Homescapes.

This is the darker side of behavioral design, but there are good uses for it as well.

Apps that help people lose weight, quit smoking, drink more water, or find more inner peace all appropriately incorporate behavioral design.

A common way of changing behavior that is used extensively today is gamification.

Gamification is when you incorporate game-like elements into non-game contexts.

Many exercise apps use the idea of scoring points, leveling up, and unlocking rewards.

A great example of this is Nike+, the very popular exercise ecosystem. Gamification is effectively woven throughout the Nike+ experience, from achievements to unlocking partner rewards, and for a good reason.

Motivating people to exercise can be a huge challenge, and adding gamification elements can make the act of exercising less onerous. It can help people make a new action into a habit, or ritual, which makes it an integrated part of our lives.

Famed dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp understood how important it was to change behavior through creating habits. In her book The Creative Habit she described her ritual:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

Successful products benefit from luck, but people and companies who design great products create their own luck.

Make sure that you keep these psychology concepts in mind when you’re ready to have your product designed.

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