World War II propaganda, 1943


World War II propaganda, 1944

On psychology, design and society

– Tom Van Iersel, 2005


A valuable question concerning both design and psychology is: “what do people want?”. Because when we understand our own needs, or the needs and motivations of other people, we will be able to fulfil them. One of the theories presented by psychology is the hierarchical theory by Maslow, which says that you have to fulfil one layer of needs in order to advance to the next one . But, there is a much simpler answer as well. Most people will say that it is money they want, or fame, a nice car, power, and so on. Or perhaps simply more time. Mostly, people seem interested in what others have and fail to appreciate what’s theirs. The group of peers is extremely important in defining the needs of a person. A very interesting psychological construct that deals specifically with the influence of others on our own values, needs and actions, is conformity. Conformity means the inexplicit pressure exercised on an individual by a group: an individual will usually behave in such a way that the group will prevail. There are famous experiments conducted by Latane & Darly and Ash, that clearly demonstrate the willingness of an individual to comply or to adjust their own opinion to that of the group.

Now, concerning the aesthetic, things are no different. Stuff is seen as pretty and beautiful because a group or society says so. The illusion that we have an individual opinion is quickly vaporised when we look at clothing from the 1980’s... they actually believed they looked awesome. And people in the Renaissance must've thought wigs were pretty cool.


There are several reasons for assuming that a group is right. One is lack of information: when we don’t have enough information to make a solid decision, we will tend to believe in the overall estimate a group offers, which induces bias. Another reason is normalisation in general; that you respect the norms and values of the group, and that you even adjust your opinion to that of the group, even if you are sure that you are right.

Another aspect of groups, of masses more specifically, is that they move in their own manner. Masses tend to form patterns and it looks like they have a mind of their own, some sort of collective intelligence (or stupidity). Craig Reynolds made a beautiful computer algorithm of birds flocks in the eighties (I wonder what he was wearing). It almost seems that a mass of people has an identity of its own – and therefore gives an identity to anyone belonging to it.

With the rise of capitalism, the things we consume provide us with identity. We mirror ourselves to illusionary images on billboards and advertisements. We all belong to, or strive for acceptance from certain groups. Whether you like it or not! And this is where design meets society. The iPhone looks cool. I have an iPhone. Hence I am cool. A logical fallacy of the purest quality! A designer has the power to design society. Take for instance the infamous butterfly ballot for the American elections of 2000 for the state of Florida. The second punch hole was for Al Gore, but it had Pat Buchanan’s name alongside it. Which is probably what lost Gore the presidency. Or take propaganda: during times of war design obviously has had a clear impact on society.


Despite all, people still believe themselves to be impervious to group pressure, impervious to funny TV-commercials, impervious to mass consumerism, and believe firmly in their own free will. In the Milgram experiments it was painfully exposed that normal people are capable of atrocities, and, under pressure do things they normally wouldn’t. This is not conformity but obedience. And those two ingredients, obedience and conformity, are dangerous ingredients that can easily derail in a climate such as a defeated Germany after WWI.

This leads me to consider rules in graphic design as a system as well. Rules and authority can be great help, but have to be approached with caution. In graphic design, there are a number of rules which you have to bear in mind, but sometimes you shouldn't be afraid to break them. Rules give a sense of safety, but can stand in the way of a truly innovative approach. A standardised and safe approach to each project will lead to dull and boring design. 

What rules do in design, is formulate a way to present information. This should lead to a clear communication. In this manner you can claim that design isn’t equal to communication, but that design equals meta-communication. Communication is divided into two levels. On the first level is the information itself. This is purely informative. The second level defines how the information should be interpreted. In verbal communication this would mean the words and meaning on the first level, and the nonverbal communication (such as intonation, body language,..) on the second level. The latter helps to correctly place and interpret the information. On the matter of written communication, the second level is much less obvious (only punctuation marks can be used).

And this is where graphic design steps in. Graphic design gives valuable clues as to how the information should be understood. You could say that what eye-contact and body language do for verbal communication, design does for written communication. It should help to successfully deliver information, and not be a means for conformity, mass consumerism, propaganda, normalisation, or any other opiate.