Great design is not just about aesthetics;

it’s also about psychology


Mark Coster

Founder of Pixooma

At the start of every year, we undertake an email survey asking our email subscribers database what they’d like to see in future editions. This recent survey had a good response rate and I wanted to follow up on one of the comments from a valued colleague Jacky Sherman from The Consultant's Consultant. She said. “More on the psychology of design please. I now hold in my head your talk about road signs. Up until them I couldn’t see why the font mattered – now I do.”

…if you’re travelling at 70 mph, things need to be obvious, not pretty.

What is design psychology?

Design psychology is all about understanding how the minds of the users of your product/service work and designing something that will resonate with them, evoke the desired emotions, and drive action. And there is no other project that I can think of that conjures up design psychology success than that of our road signage.

Road signage

Jacky has a great memory as many years ago I did a presentation to a number of networking groups entitled ‘The biggest graphic design job EVER, probably…’ The title related to a 1950’s/1960’s project of designing signage for the UK’s new motorways, which was undertaken by a graphic designer called Jock Kinneir and his business partner, Margaret Calvert.

For this project, a lot of graphic design niceties were effectively dismantled. It wasn’t so much about style, but legibility and ease of understanding at speed enabling drivers to take the appropriate action. After all if you’re travelling at 70 mph, things need to be obvious, not pretty. So forget nice fonts and intricate images, what was needed a simple typeface to do the job.

Birth of a new typeface

After much trialling at various distances and speeds, they created a new typeface called – which is still in use today. They also came up with another font, Motorway, which is used for the route numbers on motorways. Jock and Margaret also ditched the traditional method of using all capital letters, opting instead for a mix of upper and lower case characters which were felt to be more easily recognisable because of their shape.

Kinneir and Calvert’s great insight was to realise that a lot of the time, drivers don’t really need to read the words on road signs at all. If they’re looking for a particular destination, they can pick up that information instantly from the shape of the word itself, rather than needing to actually read the letters making it up.

Simplicity at its core

The dynamic duo also, where possible, eliminated, or dramatically reduced, the reliance on text. They created a set of icons that could be understood without the need for language and kept everything as simple as possible to aid understanding and prevent any confusion for drivers.

I think what is amazing about this project, and possibly why Jacky remembered it, is all to do with the psychology of design. Jock and Maragaret could have just tweaked the existing signage but their extensive research and testing urged them towards a complete overhaul of the UK’s Road signage network.

A design legacy

At this point there are a few other things worth mentioning about Jock and Margaret’s legacy:

  • Good design is about making things work. And sometimes keeping things simple, clear and concise is the winning formula.
  • Sixty plus years later and their road signs are still in use. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • The font Transport can be found as far afield as Italy, Iceland, Kuwait and India.
  • Transport was re-drawn and digitised and is now also the font used for, the UK government’s central website
  • Such was their success, that the pair then went on to design the font for the British railway network

Next time you’re driving, check out the very Britishness of the Transport font – clean, friendly-without-being-too-friendly characters, which are both persuasive and informational.

Finally, remember using psychology in graphic design significantly improves your marketing materials. So next time you work with a designer look carefully at words, images, colours, font and other design elements as a powerful tool for communicating messages, emotions and your brand identity effectively.

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