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First of all, let’s understand what design rules are. The term rules is quite strict. Still, psychological studies seek to understand how people’s minds work, how they visually perceive the elements of everyday life, and what sensations these elements cause. They may not cover 100% of the population because of the exceptions, but it defines some common ground for most people or some group or niche.
In his book Emotional Design, designer Donald A. Norman describes the subconscious perception below conscious perception, which comes before us. He divides the way we look at things into three levels (just like in semiotics studies):
- Visceral design: our attraction at the subconscious level.
- Behavioral design, which concerns the use and analytical performance already at the conscious level.
- Thoughtful design is about the message at the cultural level, how the user reflects on the product, and the experience of using it.
The author also lists a series of situations at the visceral (subconscious) level that can cause positive effects on us and are related to the design rules mentioned:
- warm and well-lit places;
- sweet tastes and odors;
- the cheerful cores, saturated hues;
- “reassuring” children, harmonious and straightforward rhythm melodies;
- smiling faces and “attractive” people;
- smooth and rounded textures.
Features like shapes and colors are widely used to bring us visual sensations and information. For example, British designer and journalist David McCandless gathered in one page a set of feelings that colors cause people, relating to culture and the region of the planet in that they live.
According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, there is also a well-known theory of perception called Gestalt, which considers psychological phenomena as organized, indivisible, articulated wholes, that is, as configurations.
This theory is widely used to position visual elements of a design and is based on seven principles:
- Proximity: close elements are perceived as more related to each other than distant ones;
- Similarity: similar elements are perceived as part of the same group or as having the same function;
- Continuity: elements that are positioned on a line or curve are perceived as more related;
- Closure: the brain tends to join complex elements in austere and/or known ways;
- Figure-ground: our perception instinctively perceives objects as being either in front of or in the background of a plane;
- Common region: elements positioned within the same closed area are perceived as part of the same group;
- Focal point: any element that stands out visually will capture and hold the viewer’s attention.
And why do such design rules exist?
These design rules or guides exist to understand how the user perceives the information and how we can organize it to create a good user experience. Designers can direct users’ attention to specific points of focus that will drive them to take action and make behavioral changes.
When the idea is to design products or navigations that solve problems and meet users’ needs pleasantly and objectively, we study and consider every point of the design rules.
This question is also valid for the world of brands since the brand is the identification. This symbol represents the product, the experience, and the relationship with those who produce it. Certain brands favor themselves by building an emotional response that appeals to the consumer, creating a positive perception from the unconscious level to a complete relationship between the product and the individual. So brands are about emotions, judgments, and the study of how people at all levels perceive shapes and elements.
tudo de como as formas e elementos são percebidos pelas pessoas em todos os níveis.
When to break the design rules?
Using the design rules of good design is not always the goal of the project. Sometimes designers come across other intentions and characteristics to be explored. Just as Norman lists aspects that make our perception positive on an unconscious level, he also lists aspects that make it negative, and that can be used to cause opposite effects:
- high height;
- very intense or unexpected sounds or lights;
- creaking and jarring sounds;
- extreme heat or cold;
- unbalanced objects;
- bitter flavors;
- the smell of rot or decay;
- pointed shapes.
For this reason, it is so important to define the project objective before any execution. Tracing the personas, that is, who these users will be or how their perception and experience with the product should be, makes all the difference in defining which rules to follow and which not to follow.
Designers need to know how to communicate visually for both good and bad. The project’s aim may be to induce a wrong choice, cause confusion or discomfort, and show a comparison of what is good versus what is not.
Often it is not about a good or bad perception in opposite directions, but about more subtle characteristics such as the difference between fluid and rounded shapes that bring the perception of lightness and square and symmetrical shapes that bring firmness and rationality. Note that each of these examples can be both right or wrong depending on the universe in which they are inserted. The same goes for the psychology of colors when choosing which ones to use.
Finally, before breaking the design rules, you need to know them very well, know the path you want to take, and arrive at a solution specifying exactly the points where the rules will be circumvented according to the proposed objectives for the project and the personas defined.