The Three Aspects of Visual Design

by April 16, 2004

In Emotional Design, Donald Norman describes three aspects of design: Visceral design (“concerns itself with appearances”), behavioral design (“has to do with the pleasure and effectiveness of use”), and reflective design (“considers the rationalization and intellectualization of a product”). It turns out this is also an interesting way to explain the different applications of visual design in products.

The most commonly understood aspect of visual design is visceral: “making things look pretty”. Reactions to the visceral level of design are immediate and powerful. It only takes a second to determine if the “look and feel” of a product appeals to you.

Behavioral design is “all about use”. According to Norman, appearance doesn’t matter, performance does. Norman states that visceral design is the domain for graphic artists and behavioral design is bread and butter of usability engineers. However, visual design also exists on the behavioral level. In fact, the visual organization of an interface has a huge impact on usability. The visual relationships between interface elements are directly responsible for user comprehension and guidance. How you lay out various interface elements determines how users interpret them. Visual perception principles like proximity and similarity not only describe functionality, but also effectively move users through tasks and information. Norman states that in behavioral design: “after function comes understanding” and goes on to describe mental models, feedback, and usability –without mentioning visual design again.

In my experience this is the approach at many large technology companies. The interaction designers and usability engineers think about interface elements and user needs (the behavioral design) and graphic designers think about the look and feel (the visceral design). Because most interaction designers and usability engineers do not have a visual background, no one thinks about visual design on the behavioral level. The result is interfaces that miss a great opportunity to educate users through visual communication.

The third aspect of visual design is also often missing from the interface design process. Reflective design is all about the message, culture, and meaning of a product and its use. In large companies, reflective design is responsibility of brand and marketing organizations and rarely integrated with the interface design of a product.

A really great product that can live up to Norman’s vision of emotional design needs to tightly integrate all three levels of visual design at the interface level. Only by considering all three aspects of visual design can a product engage and delight (visceral design), educate and guide (behavioral design), and form lasting relationships with users (reflective design). This is not to say that usability and function should be secondary -they are, of course, equally important. However, visual design cannot only be considered at the visceral level as common practice holds. Visual design is much more powerful when it encompasses all three levels of design in a single product.