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The Psychology Behind ‘Intelligent Design’

As a branding and digital agency, when we talk about intelligent design we’re referring to design that’s an innovative solution to a problem, one that is engaging and beautiful in its simplicity.

We’re reclaiming the term from the mad Creationists and we’re going to root it in the scientific discipline of psychology.

It’s clear that not everything that’s designed is designed intelligently. Apple’s new mouse, for example, needs to be on its back when it charges, rendering it unusable; The Walkie-Talkie skyscraper (or 20 Fenchurch Street) famously melted cars in 2013 when its surface reflected sunlight down onto the street, leading to the developers apologizing and retrofitting it with a ‘brise soleil’.

If the initial approach to design is grounded in research, listening to your client to understand their goals and thinking critically about how best to deliver them, then when it comes to the finished product it should be effective and useable for your audience – and not accidentally melt anything.

So what’s designed intelligently?

Take a look at ‘I remember’. It’s a website created by a French medical research institute that encourages donation to Alzheimer’s research by asking you to share your memories by uploading pictures from social media with the tag ‘I remember’.

The site gradually disappears, echoing how Alzheimer’s sufferers lose their memories, if people stop sharing theirs.

It’s a simple and effective idea because it points straight to one of the most devastating symptoms of the disease.

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As you scroll gradually through the dunes of people’s memories (captured in orbs that are not unlike Riley’s memories in Pixar’s Inside Out), some funny, some sad, it forces you to consider the impact of the disease on the sufferer and those close to them; its collaborative design making it even more impactful.

There aren’t multiple pages of scientific explanation about what Alzheimer’s exactly does to the brain, or the complex technology being developed to help understand it, or the biopharmacology being created to help combat it.

Instead, it is designed to promote action by helping the user relate to others and reflect on what their own memories mean to them, in a simple, engaging, and aesthetic way.

You don’t need to extrapolate any information and figure out what the aims of the site are, you’re immediately engaged in the stylized fonts, the interactive elements – like the search ability, and the pictures that people have uploaded.

Grounded in science

Not every company has a complex vision to communicate or highly technical product to advertise, of course. But every brand does have a vision, along with values that it lives and breathes, and a website that might be the only customer-facing part of their business.

Research shows that we spend about three seconds, making up our minds whether we want to continue browsing a website or not – a statistic that is echoed in psychological studies that investigate how long it takes humans to create a first impression.

Brands can’t expect us to search their site for their vision and values, or to work out from pages of copy what their messaging is in this short timeframe.

It needs to be made much easier for us.

So if brands want to make a good first impression and engage their audience, design helps simplify their messaging and communicate their vision so that those three seconds are well spent.

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You can blame the psychological concept of heuristics: simple, efficient rules. Heuristics proposes that we’re evolved to conserve as much energy as possible when undertaking a task – so the brain constantly looks for shortcuts (this is why we’re susceptible to cognitive biases like thinking that people who are nice are also clever).

Mental tasks, like scrutinizing a website, burn energy in the same way as running to catch a train. So if our brain does a quick energy burning cost/benefit analysis and finds we still haven’t learned anything from this website, we may simply abandon the activity altogether to seek out a simpler one. It’s not worth the effort.

Intelligent design takes advantage of our evolved process to understand the simplest, most efficient messaging. If done well, intelligent design provides that shortcut.

We’re exposed to more information in one day than our relatives 100 years ago were exposed to in a lifetime. Keeping your audience’s attention has never been more challenging and standing out from the crowd has never been more important.

Ultimately, you want to help people understand what your brand stands for – simply, quickly, and beautifully.

You’re evolved to love intelligent design.

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