Neurodesign: where the brain meets design

At the intersection of neuroscience and design lies a field called neurodesign. The discipline seeks to understand how the human brain perceives, processes, and responds to designs. Building on insights from cognitive neuroscience, designers can create experiences that look great and resonate with users on a cognitive and emotional level.

By applying cognitive neuroscience principles to design, we can gain a deeper understanding of how users interact with and remember the experiences we create. Cognitive factors can influence the effectiveness and memorability of a design in countless ways.

The cognitive building blocks of memorable design

To create genuinely unforgettable designs, it’s essential to consider the various cognitive factors at play. These include:

Perception

Cognitive processes such as attention, pattern recognition, and perceptual organization heavily influence how our brains process and interpret visual information. Designers must consider how users will perceive their designs, considering factors like visual hierarchy, contrast, and Gestalt principles.

Attention

The mechanism by which our brains select and focus on specific stimuli. Our attentional resources are limited, and we can only focus on a few elements at a time. By using techniques like visual cues, whitespace, and contrast, designers can guide users’ attention to the most important elements of a design.

Memory

The process by which our brains encode, store, and retrieve information. Remembering and recalling design elements is crucial for creating lasting impressions. Cognitive factors such as encoding, storage, and retrieval play a significant role in determining how well users remember a particular design. By incorporating memorable visual elements, storytelling, and emotional triggers, designers can increase the likelihood of their designs being remembered and recalled.

Emotion

The complex interplay between cognition and feeling. Emotions play a powerful role in shaping user experiences and influencing decision-making. Designs that evoke strong emotional responses, whether positive or negative, are more likely to be remembered and acted upon. By understanding the emotional impact of color, typography, and imagery, designers can create experiences that resonate with users on a deeper level.

These cognitive building blocks form the foundation of memorable design. But to truly leverage the power of neurodesign, we should explore the specific cognitive and neurological factors that can influence its effectiveness—and there are a lot of them.

15 cognitive keys to unlocking memorable design

  1. Visual simplicity: Our brains are wired to prefer simplicity over complexity. By minimizing visual clutter and focusing on essential elements, designers can create work that is easier for the brain to process and remember. This is why 95% of the world’s most recognized brands utilize logos with straightforward designs.
  2. Emotional salience: Emotions play a decisive role in memory formation. Designs that evoke strong emotional responses, whether positive or negative, are more likely to be remembered due to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which help to encode memories more deeply.
  3. Narrative: Humans are natural storytellers, and our brains are wired to respond to narrative structures. By incorporating storytelling elements into design, we can tap into the brain’s natural affinity for narrative processing, making the experience more engaging and memorable.
  4. Color and contrast: Our visual system is highly sensitive to color and contrast, which can evoke specific emotional and physiological responses. Using strategic color combinations and contrast ratios, designers can guide users’ attention, evoke particular moods, and increase a design’s overall impact.
  5. Visual hierarchy: Our brains process visual information hierarchically, with certain elements taking precedence over others. By organizing design elements in a clear visual hierarchy, designers can help users quickly identify and remember the most essential information.
  6. Attentional focus: Our attentional resources are limited, and we can only focus on a small number of elements at a time. Using techniques like visual cues, whitespace, and contrast, designers can direct users’ attention to the most critical parts of a design, increasing the likelihood of those elements being remembered.
  7. Novelty: Our brains are naturally drawn to new and unexpected stimuli, which can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. By creating designs that break conventions and offer something novel, designers can increase the memorability of their work. This is why 80% of well-designed logos have the potential to become iconic symbols that transcend time.
  8. Cognitive load: Our working memory has a limited capacity, and when cognitive load becomes too high, it can impair our ability to process and remember information. By presenting information clearly and concisely, designers can reduce the cognitive load placed on users, making the experience more memorable.
  9. Gestalt principles: Our brains naturally perceive visual elements as part of a larger whole rather than as individual parts. By applying Gestalt principles like proximity, similarity, and closure, designers can create visually unified and coherent designs that are easier for the brain to process and remember.
  10. Visual metaphors: Metaphors are powerful cognitive tools that help us understand abstract concepts in terms of more concrete, familiar experiences. By utilizing visual metaphors in design, we can tap into the brain’s ability to make connections and associations, enhancing the memorability of the experience.
  11. Repetition and consistency: Repeated exposure to consistent stimuli strengthens neural connections and improves memory retention. By consistently using key design elements like colors, shapes, and motifs across different touchpoints, designers can create a stronger, more easily remembered and recognized visual identity.
  12. Personalization: Our brains are highly attuned to information that is personally relevant or meaningful to us. By tailoring designs to individual users’ preferences, needs, and experiences, designers can create a stronger emotional connection and increase the likelihood of the design being remembered.
  13. Multisensory design: Engaging multiple senses can enhance the brain’s encoding and retrieval of information. Designers can create more immersive and memorable experiences that tap into the brain’s multisensory processing capabilities by incorporating elements like sound, touch, or even scent into a design.
  14. Emotional design: Emotions are intricately linked to cognition and play a crucial role in decision-making and memory formation. By designing experiences that evoke specific emotional responses, like joy, surprise, or even nostalgia, designers can create more engaging and memorable experiences that resonate with users on a deeper level.
  15. Neuroplasticity: Our brains are remarkably adaptable and can change in response to new experiences and learning. By designing experiences encouraging exploration, discovery, and skill development, designers can tap into the brain’s natural plasticity and create more engaging and memorable experiences promoting learning and growth.
  16. Von Restorff effect: Also known as the isolation effect, this principle suggests that items that stand out from their surroundings are more likely to be remembered. By creating distinct and unique visual elements, designers can increase the memorability of specific parts of a design.
  17. Serial position effect: This refers to the tendency for items at the beginning and end of a sequence to be more easily remembered than those in the middle. By strategically placing critical information or calls to action at the start or end of a user journey, designers can increase the likelihood of those elements being remembered.
  18. Zeigarnik effect: Named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, this effect suggests that incomplete or interrupted tasks are more easily remembered than completed ones. By creating designs that encourage users to take action or complete a task, designers can leverage this cognitive bias to create more engaging and memorable experiences.
  19. Aesthetic-usability effect: This principle suggests that aesthetically pleasing designs are perceived as more usable and effective, even if they are not objectively superior in functionality. By creating visually appealing and aesthetically refined designs, designers can enhance the perceived usability and memorability of a product or experience.
  20. Priming: Priming refers to how exposure to one stimulus can influence the response to a subsequent stimulus. By strategically using visual or semantic cues in a design, designers can prime users to be more receptive to specific messages or calls to action, increasing the likelihood of those elements being remembered.
  21. Cognitive fluency: This refers to the ease with which information can be processed and understood. Designs that are easy to read, navigate, and comprehend are more likely to be remembered and viewed positively. By creating designs that are cognitively fluent, designers can reduce the mental effort required to process information, making the experience more memorable.
  22. Mere exposure effect: Also known as the familiarity principle, this effect suggests that people tend to develop a preference for things simply because they are familiar with them. By consistently using certain design elements or branding across different touchpoints, designers can increase the familiarity and memorability of a product or experience.
  23. Peak-end rule: This psychological heuristic suggests that people judge an experience based mainly on how they felt at its most intense point and its end rather than based on the average of every moment. By designing experiences that end on a high note or create a particularly memorable moment, designers can leave a lasting positive impression that enhances the overall memorability of the experience.
  24. Dual-coding theory: This theory suggests that the brain processes and stores information in two distinct ways: verbally and visually. By combining visual and verbal elements in a design, such as pairing images with descriptive text, designers can tap into the brain’s dual-coding capabilities and create more memorable and effective learning experiences.
  25. Emotional contagion: This refers to how emotions can spread from one person to another through unconscious mimicry and synchronization of facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language. By designing experiences that evoke positive emotional responses, designers can create a sense of shared emotion and increase the memorability and impact of the experience.

The future of neurodesign

As our understanding of the human brain continues to evolve, so will the neurodesign field. With advancements in neuroimaging technology and the growing convergence of neuroscience and design, we can expect to see even more exciting developments in the years to come.

But even with all the cognitive principles and neurological insights at our disposal, it’s important to remember that design is ultimately a human-centered discipline. The most effective and memorable designs leverage the power of cognitive neuroscience and prioritize empathy, user needs, and each project’s unique context.

As designers, marketers, and business leaders, we have the opportunity to create experiences that drive business results and enrich people’s lives on a cognitive and emotional level. By understanding and applying the principles of neurodesign, we can unlock the full potential of our creative work and create truly unforgettable experiences.

Now, you might be thinking, “Hold on, are you telling me that designers consciously consider every one of these cognitive principles every time they sit down to create something? That seems like an awful lot to keep in mind!”

You’re right. It would be overwhelming to try to explicitly tick off each of these cognitive keys for every design decision. However, experienced designers often internalize these principles over time, applying them intuitively and instinctually to their work.

A skilled designer might not be able to recite the names of each cognitive principle, but they will likely address each one in their own way, consciously or subconsciously. They develop a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t based on their understanding of how the human brain perceives, processes, and remembers information.

This is why working with experienced designers can be so valuable. They’ve had the time and focus to absorb and integrate these principles into their creative process. They bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table, ensuring that your designs are visually compelling and optimized for cognitive impact.

The future of design is exciting, and with neurodesign as our guide, the possibilities are endless. Let’s embrace the science of the mind and create experiences that are not just visually compelling but genuinely unforgettable.