Psychology in Design: What Makes Images Effective

Psychology in Design: What Makes Images Effective

This summer, our intern Ronin Rodkey did research on how psychology can inform the design of good content. The following article is the last in a three-part series explaining his core findings. You can read the first article here and the second here.


We previously looked at the role more symbolic elements of design—like colors, shapes, or graphs—play in helping us process information. This article, by contrast, examines the role that images and symbols rooted in the real world play in our perception of material.


[Left: A side view of a golden retriever, a familiar dog from a familiar view. Right: A Pekingese from the front, an unfamiliar dog from an unfamiliar view.]

In the two side-by-side images from above, you probably identified the image on the left as a dog very, very quickly—probably within milliseconds of seeing it. The dog on the right—which is somewhat less classically dog-shaped than the first—probably took longer.

This is because humans are quite good at getting the “gist” of familiar images, but going beyond that can be more challenging. Show someone a picture of a street scene, a stop sign, or a tree, and their brains will very quickly connect that image to their stored memory of such visuals. Experiments have even shown that we are still quite good at perceiving the gist of images even if they are blurred or otherwise obscured[1].

Our brains are also quite good at assigning meaning to those images. When shown a picture of a dog, people are usually quick to make the connection of its being loyal, friendly, or playful. Show someone a picture of a mother and a child, and they can quickly assign emotion to the image.

There is one important caveat to this: Images must be easily identified. Our conceptions of things are based on prior experiences. People cannot be relied on to identify a dog breed they aren’t familiar with, or identify a street scene from an unusual perspective.

So what does this mean for design? Including simple imagery in content or advertisements can be a very effective way to help consumers derive meaning from materials with just a single glance—no need for sustained attention.








For example, in the above Facebook ads, Survey Monkey uses pictures effectively and Safari does not. Assuming the Survey Monkey ad is targeting people who play Playstation, someone scrolling past would be able to quickly identify the ad as depicting a Playstation controller—no reading required. They may stop scrolling to see if the ad is relevant to them.

While the Safari ad certainly has strengths, someone scrolling past who is interested in reading might not link Safari to books. Their picture displays their logo against what looks like a subway map; it fails to quickly inform consumers about the product at hand.

In data visualization, effective use of imagery can help readers quickly create connections between data and what the data is depicting. For example, the below chart on NFL injuries helps us easily make sense of where players sustain the most injuries; the below chart on pet statistics uses pictures and symbols to help us more easily register what each of the rows refers to.










In short, when images are presented to us in familiar ways—when we see scenes that we can easily grasp the gist of—the brain can quickly process and assign meaning to them.



Visual Thinking for Design by Colin Ware

Good Charts by Scott Berinato

Oliva, Aude, and Antonio Torralba. “Building the gist of a scene: The role of global image features in recognition.” Progress in brain research 155 (2006): 23-36.Pieters, Rik, and Michel Wedel. Gripping the Gist: What Ads Communicate in a Single Glance. Working paper, Tilburg University, 2009.

[1] Olivia and Torralba

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