Design Best Practices

Creating Empathy with Visuals to Connect with Users

Carrie Cousins By Carrie Cousins July 12, 2016

Human psychology is defined by the way we engage with others. Design psychology is no different. It’s part empathy and part self-awareness.

But how do you create designs that foster empathy? It’s easier than you might think when you use the right combination of photos, typography and color to trigger emotion.

To get started, think about what should happen when a user engages with your design. The Fogg Behavior Model is a great framework for wrestling with this idea:

  • Motivate: The user must want to do something—an emotional connection is key.
  • Ability: The user must be able to perform the action in an easy way.
  • Trigger: The user must actually perform the action.

Here’s how you do it.

Create Photos That Make a Strong First Impression

People like to see photos of other people. You’ve heard that the eyes are the key to the soul, and that’s especially true when it comes to photography.

A photo is the first thing a user will see and establishes a baseline for the interaction. The visuals in your design should connect with users in a way that makes them see a real person on the other end of the design.

Empathetic Photography

  • Tell a story with visuals to create a unique connection. An emotional scene between a parent and child, for example, will resonate with caregivers.
  • Do something for users with the imagery. Give them a reason to engage with the design such as a fun or unexpected element.
  • Use photography that’s realistic. If the scene appears fake, the user won’t connect with it.
  • Think about your target audience and use imagery that resonates with them.
  • Try to avoid ant syndrome, where every element in an image is tiny. Mix up photo angles and sizes so that some faces are close and others are far away.

Use Simple Typography to Improve Readability

When it comes to typography, lettering shouldn’t get in the way of the design. Every word should be easy to scan and read. The words should match the overall visual tone of the project.

Once you’ve dug into the story you’re telling with your design, you can start to pick out an actual typeface. Usually, it’s best to keep it simple. Letters that are too fancy or overly adorned are difficult to read. They can get in the way and harm readability.

While different kinds of lettering can imply meaning, the best option is often to choose a typeface that takes on the characteristics of its surroundings. Typefaces such as Helvetica and Georgia are popular for this reason. Simple typefaces are easier to work with when it comes to planning size, space, and contrast because they fit into the space like puzzle pieces rather than working against one another.

Combine Color with Intent

Color is everywhere in a design. Some colors you choose intentionally, such as colors that are part of your brand palette; others might appear less intentionally (the clothes people are wearing in a photo).

Whether intentional or not, color plays a vital role in how people feel about and connect to what they see on the screen. Consider Pantone 448C for a moment; it has been labeled the “world’s ugliest color.”

Pantone 448C

In one study, the color was so repugnant that it actually discouraged smokers when used on labels. This is a color you’d probably aim to avoid, unless your goal was to evoke a negative emotional response to a topic or image.

Every other color has common associations, even if they aren’t as dramatic. It’s important to think about your audience and how they will perceive certain colors when looking at your design as a whole. Then think about the colors you choose intentionally and how they interact with the unintentional ones.

Conclusion

Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings. It’s at the root of human connection, and it’s vital to helping users connect with any type of design. You can create the right connection with your audience by using strong imagery, evocative typography that’s easy to read, and color that matches the tone of the project to encourage interaction and clicks.


About the Author

Carrie Cousins has more than 15 years in the media industry, including writing for print and online publications. As a designer, writer and editor, the little pieces of everything—from facts to color—are important.

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