03 Jan Design Strategy: Your Brain on Product Design

(This was originally published in the Winter 2013 Issue of Innovation, The Journal of the Industrial Designers Society of America)

This is a great era for industrial design. The role of design is expanding beyond the design of products and systems, and design is now synonymous with innovation and creativity. Design is being redefined in another way as well. Emerging research in neuroscience, psychology and anthropology demonstrates that design plays an important role in influencing consumer decision-making. It is important that designers and design researchers understand the resulting implications and opportunities.

Research in the field of neuroscience reveals that people perceive design through the five key senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. Sensorial input is transduced into signals and transported to the brain. The brain routinely processes these stimuli beneath the level of conscious thought. Because these thought processes occur in the unconscious, consumers have limited awareness of these thoughts and often cannot directly articulate the perception, meaning and emotion conveyed through design.


When engaging with a brand or product, an emotional response is produced in the unconscious mind. These interactions elicit a variety of emotions ranging from a negative state of dissatisfaction to a positive state of delight. Experiences with products and brands are stored in memory where they are linked to the emotions associated with those experiences. These unconscious memories and emotions become a part of peoples’ impressions and gut feelings and are evoked in response to visual and other sensory cues. These emotions are later recalled from memory when people make decisions about products and brands.

Emotions linked to past experiences play a strong roll in decision-making. Neuroscientists and psychologists have shown that people rely on the emotions that accompany their memories to guide future decisions; they unconsciously evoke these stored memories and use them as a compass. Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have shown that without these emotions and memories people are unable to make even the most fundamental decisions. Therefore, it is important that consumers have a holistically positive experience with products and brands. Negative experiences should be quickly corrected so they do not impact consumer decision-making for years to come.

Design can also evoke emotion, such as aggression or calmness, fear or pleasure, through direct aesthetic interpretation. We do not completely understand why some forms seem to innately provoke an emotional response, such as why the golden rectangle has universal appeal. Some researchers believe these interpretations are best understood in the context of evolutionary anthropology and are linked to survival and reproduction.

Emotion is also generated through the interpretation of the form within the culture. Often these expressions come through the use of metaphor, personality, humor and other expressive characteristics and are commonly based on culturally specific semeiology. The Alessi corkscrew shaped like a nun evokes emotion in this way.

One of the most important roles of design is in the formation of self-identity. Consumers, often unconsciously, choose products and brands that support their concept of self, defining their identity within their culture. When consumers develop strong bonds between products and their self-identity, they are willing to go to great lengths to sustain the relationship. A recent multiyear study of over 4,000 respondents published in the Journal of Marketing found that these attachment bonds offer significant benefits. Consumers are more loyal to these products, more likely to pay a premium for them and more likely to spend their own time and resources to promote them. It is exciting that we can now evaluate the strength of these attachment bonds to product design through specialized concept-testing methods.

The role of design in evoking emotion, creating meaning and influencing consumer decision-making is not new. Designers have been intuitively aware of the impact of their work for some time. What is new is the validation of these beliefs and a deeper understanding of the psychological, anthropological and neurological implications of design. As research continues to emerge and the implications begin to shape, the practice of design will become more multidisciplinary in nature and more tightly linked to science and social science.

Mark Capper

Kompas Strategy