the letters

Psychology of design: a play on words

Riley Cullen's Layout avatar

Your brand message house is a vital tool—it helps you define how, where, and why you should communicate with your customers. The way your messaging is written, organized, and presented are all crucial to how it will be received overall.

As with all things, our subconscious is just as important in the human decision-making process as our active brain. It predicts and makes decisions much faster than your conscious mind. Great designers take all of these factors into account, like the way the letters in your headlines are shaped and how the placement of your content will draw a user’s eye across the page.

Read on to make sure your design is as attractive to your audience’s subconscious minds as possible by thinking about the ways your content choices affect your site’s impact.


Font design

Everyone knows that font choice is important. Just think about how you’d feel if your favorite brand switched their core font to Comic Sans! But choosing a good font doesn’t necessarily mean choosing a “safe” font. You can have fun and explore different types of typeface until one feels right.

The core tenants of a good font are:

  • It should be legible
  • It should be on-brand

Outside of those two requirements, you should feel free to try lots of options until you find the right fit for your project. The four most common font styles used in logo and website design are serif, san-serif, script, and decorative fonts.

Serif fonts 

Descriptors: classic, trusted, respected, traditional, steadfast, established, credible, reliable. 

Serifs refer to the small strokes featured at the end of the letters in certain fonts. All those essays you had to submit in double-spaced, size 12 Times New Roman during high school? They had serif strokes. Serif fonts still remain popular on printed materials.

Serif fonts are popular in the financial sector due to their time-honored, dependable appearance. Wells Fargo and Berkshire Hathaway both use serif fonts in their wordmarks. While narrower letters come across as formal and professional, slab serif fonts tend to look more masculine and powerful. For example, Man Crates—the men’s gift company—uses a chunky serif typeface that resembles a stamp on a shipping container.

Be careful, however. As with all aspects of design, your font choice can leave some unintended impressions if it’s not the right fit for your overall concept. Serif fonts can also come across as stuffy, aloof, or snobbish in some instances. 

Sans-serif fonts

Descriptors: modern, progressive, straightforward, friendly, easygoing, clear, frank, transparent. 

Sans-serif letters tend to look cleaner and less frilly than their serifed counterparts. This may be one of the reasons it’s popular in the tech sector. Technology aims to improve and simplify our lives, so it makes sense that tech companies like Google and Apple—and even the blog here on Layout—often choose simple, serif-free typefaces for their websites.

Because they look more modern than the more bookish feel of a serif font, some companies are even undergoing brand refreshes to change their older look and start over with a sans-serif font. The Canadian International Bank of Commerce (CIBC) did exactly that when changing their logo in 2021. 

According to CIBC President and CEO Victor Dodig, they refreshed their look because “as we look to the future, it’s more important than ever that our brand captures the bank we are today.” Clearly, putting a more modern, progressive foot forward was a core driver behind the font choice.

As more brands start and continue to use sans-serif fonts, it can be easy to lose your identity in a sea of similar-looking scripts. Some companies have combatted this by creating custom sans fonts, but that’s not necessarily feasible for every project. Make sure your overall design or idea is bold enough to allow for a subtler typeface if sans-serif fonts appeal to you.

Scripts

Descriptors: personal, sophisticated, intimate, elegant, luxurious, indulgent, domestic, old-fashioned. 

Whether you believe cursive handwriting should be taught or not, there’s no indication that its popularity as a font is declining. In fact, script writing has long been a popular choice in the food industry. Krispy Kreme and Campbell’s come to mind as two obvious examples, but smaller hometown restaurants also choose script fonts regularly. Here in Omaha, Ted & Wally’s ice cream shop is an appropriate (and delicious) example. 

There’s a level of intimacy that comes with a cursive script. It feels personal, like someone took the time to scrawl out a note just for you. Because it feels more familiar, script fonts are often used for direct mail marketing and for invitations as well. 

There’s also a sense of nostalgia tied to cursive writing. It’s often considered a remnant of the past, so it has quite the opposite effect of a sans-serif font. This nostalgia may be one of the reasons cursive is still so popular in infant and childhood products, even when cursive itself is not being taught to many of them.

Decorative fonts

Descriptors: powerful, bold, creative, original, casual, fun, fresh, authentic. 

Decorative fonts, display fonts, headline fonts—no matter what you want to call them, they make a statement. Sometimes a custom font will be reminiscent of an era, like the 70s or 80s. Others can be artistic, light, harsh, or sharp. When you’re finding or creating the perfect decorative font, knowledge of shapes and how they affect psychology will come in handy. 

Suavecito hair balm, for example, uses a font that looks like it could adorn the door of a tattoo shop. It’s very befitting for the outlaw-style branding—their About Us page paints them as the team that’s breaking the industry mold by providing high quality grooming products without the high costs.

Screenshot from the brand page of the Sanuk website featuring a picture of their founder. Beneath the picture in handwritten-style lettering, a caption reads "This is Jeff"
The label “This is Jeff” uses the a very similar font to the one in the Sanuk logo

Sanuk shoes also created a font to use in their logo, but it’s also used sparingly for callouts throughout the site, like on their Brand page to label a picture of their founder Jeff Kelley.

Screenshot of the Fanta homepage with three of their "It's a snack thing" pairings. Each has a unique font, color palette, and art style.
Screenshot of Fanta’s “It’s a Thing” campaign materials

Fanta has lots of fun with their fonts as well. Their “It’s a Thing” campaign matches different Fanta flavors to snacks that pair well with them, and each of the pairings has its own theme. The imagery on their homepage is highly playful, and their bulbous logo font is also reflective of that absurdity.

If you’re choosing or creating your own decorative font, be careful that it actually fits the design aesthetic. You may love the way a font looks, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right for what you’re working on. 

icons of screens with different display layouts on the desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone.

Content hierarchy 

Placing your content with intention when planning your website’s layout will save you a lot of hassle in the long run. Your content hierarchy refers to the strategic way you arrange information on your site. While it’s tempting to come up with the most beautiful visual experience possible, your user’s experience on the site dictates that it can’t be all about aesthetics.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to your content hierarchy is that you’ll never have a greater hold on your audience’s attention than the second they navigate to your site. After that, every second scrolling, clicking, and loading a new page needs to be used wisely, because users are only spending an average of 54 seconds on a website before navigating away.

To ensure your viewers learn everything they need to know about you as quickly as possible, place any need-to-know information close to the top. This will ensure the majority of your viewers will, at the very least, get the gist of what you’re doing and why your strategy, product, or service is a good choice. 

This also means ensuring that your main themes stand out boldly. Use accent fonts or even the accent colors in your brand palette to highlight subheadings or important body copy you want to highlight. Break up any large chunks of text with images, infographics, videos, calls to action, or quotes to keep your users moving—if they’re scrolling, they’re not bouncing. 

Finally, make sure every page on your website ends with some kind of clickable. Whether it’s a button to purchase, a link to another page on your site, or a creative footer with multiple internal links, provide an opportunity to keep your users on your site longer. This helps keep your bounce rate low, your rankings high, and your users happy because there’s a clear direction regarding where they should navigate next!

yellow icons of writing and desk utensils. A pen, a pencil, an eraser, and a ruler are featured.

Word choice

As important as where you put them and what they look like are the actual words you write when speaking about your brand, company, product, or client. Use these quick tips to help you craft better headlines, calls to action, product descriptions, on-page content, and blog content.

Headlines & calls to action

If a user is skimming your site, there will be a few things they’ll notice, even if they’re scrolling quickly: your images and graphics, your headlines, and your calls to action. So, word choice in your headlines and CTAs is crucial.

Headlines and subheadings are where you can sow the seeds of interest. They can be fun or figurative, but be cautious of getting too kitschy. You don’t want a play on words to overpower your intended message. 

A good subheading causes your audience to think and helps guide them through your site, but everyone’s mind works differently. Use multiple types of headlines to cast a wide net. You could include impressive numbers and statistics, SEO keywords, poignant questions, and occasional figurative language in the important headings and subheadings throughout your site. The shorter your headline or CTA, the more important your word choice, so lean into highly descriptive, action-oriented words.

This is especially important in CTAs and buttons. Providing a clear action for what the user should do next is crucial—whether that’s to donate, call, talk to a representative, add to cart, learn more, read on, buy now, claim offer, get discount, go vote, explore, start growing, open an account, or anything else you can imagine. Make your word choice concise, directive, and immediately noticeable through your design.

Use multiple calls to action throughout your site to gain more traffic, as different visitors will have different desires. Some people will be on your site for the first time and just want to get to know your business. Others will have already explored what you have to offer and are ready to convert. Your site should be able to fulfill any interaction your customer could want with your business.

If you’ve spent time drilling down a specific font for this business or client, a website’s headlines, subheadings, and calls to action are all great places to infuse it to further cement their branding in the minds of customers.

Product descriptions

Product descriptions should be short and sweet. You want to provide all the information your customers need to know, but going into too much detail in the description of the product isn’t necessary. In fact, it can be detrimental.

According to a 2003 article published in the Annual Review of Psychology, less than 5% of words used in daily speech or writing are considered “emotional” words. The authors state that this is because, “from an evolutionary perspective, language did not emerge as a vehicle to express emotion. In natural speech we generally use intonation, facial expression, or other nonverbal cues to convey how we feel.” 

So, be hesitant to use overly fluffy, hyperbolic, or emotional language in a product description—there’s a good chance it will come across disingenuous. Simply explain the product, why it’s beneficial, and add a price, any necessary dimensions or sizing, and a star rating if you have one available. After that, great reviews from your customers should do the selling for you.

On-page content

After users have started moving through your site, you can afford to talk about your business model, company values, products, and services more specifically. Each interior page should be a closer examination into a more dialed-in topic. However, that doesn’t mean the actual segments of your content need to get larger. 

Think of your on-page content as segments of mini advertisements. Ads are short, so break up your content into small, digestible pieces. Users are surfing the web via mobile devices with increasing frequency every year, so the paragraphs have to be small enough that they’ll still break up nicely on a smaller screen. Try to limit your paragraphs to 2–3 sentences, infuse lots of images, and leave plenty of white space between blocks of content.

When you’re sitting down to write about a topic, pay particular attention to the positive and negative words you use. Yes, your content should explain why readers should convert, but how you ask them to do so will say a lot about you and your motivations.

Words like more, increasing, abundant, beneficial, above, exceptional and most words with the suffix -ful (skillful, beautiful, delightful, powerful) are considered positive words. Use them when you’re trying to embolden and uplift your audience. 

Nike’s “Just Do It” is a great example of a positive tagline. While positive and negative motivation are both common in athletics, it’s notable that Nike chose positive language instead of something like “Never Give Up” or “Don’t Quit.”

Words like none, no, not, less, fewer, under, below, can’t, doesn’t and any word with the prefix in- or un- are likely to hold negative connotations. Negative words can increase stress, which can actually be useful. 

Image of a Black hand holding candy labeled "Not a Gun" from the award-winning advertising campaign of the same name aimed at advocating for police de-escalation, non-bias, and non-violence training
The ads invite users to visit notagun.org which advocates for police de-escalation and non-violence training

Take this design example. The “Not a Gun” campaign by the Courageous Conversation Global Foundation won gold at the American Advertising Awards for its creativity. The word “Not” already primes the human brain for stress. That subtle subconscious stress triggered by their negative word choice is being used intentionally to jar the audience. 

Just as positive and negative words can prime the brain for different messages, questions and statements can do the same. Where questions make you think, statements assert authority. 

In the human brain, a question posed is a question answered. Take this example:

Can you think of an animal that lives in water?

I’d bet your brain automatically switched gears to a picture of some kind of aquatic wildlife. This human urge to prepare an answer is what makes asking your audience questions such a useful communication tool. It’s why we still see new iterations of the “Got Milk?” campaign—because they continue to work.

Statements, on the other hand, set an authoritative tone. Whether you’re telling users about a product or telling them to do something, direct statements put you in charge (therefore placing you in the best position to direct your audience). 

Image from award-winning "Go In Deep" campaign in which a woman repels in climbing gear down a giant tooth
Designs feature a woman repelling down a tooth as well as a SCUBA diver diving between them

Student Sam Luo also won gold at last year’s American Advertising Awards for his matter-of-fact design. Based around a simple concept, “Go In Deep,” zooms into the spaces between teeth to encourage viewers to use Oral-B floss.

Blogs & additional content

Where on-page content should serve a singular purpose and invoke a strong feeling, blogs can afford to really dig in. By the time a person has clicked through your site and gotten to the blog, they want all the details, but if you had decided to show all this information to the people who are first encountering your site, it might be overwhelming. 

That’s why it’s important to keep the long-winded explanations out of your on-page content and save them for your blogs and additional content. Blogs are where you can wax poetic. However, that doesn’t mean you need to add in words for the sake of meeting some arbitrary quota. Writers often have the misconception that longer paragraphs make them sound smarter, but your readers would much prefer for you to get to the point. 

Write in an active voice as much as possible to help eliminate ambiguity and get to the point of your blog without too many prepositional phrases or lingering antecedents. Then, once you’ve said all you need to say, proofread

You should proofread all the content that goes on your site—obviously—but marketers will sometimes overlook this step on a blog in their rush to publish new content. While you can’t guarantee an error-free publication, you’d be surprised how many edits can pop up when you read through your work with fresh eyes.

Just like any good web page, make sure your blog is interspersed with the proper H2 and H3 tags and that your paragraphs remain small and digestible (although they can afford to get a bit meatier here). Images and graphics can and should be used to break up longer blogs—like this one—and jump links and anchor text can help direct your readers more effectively.


Type out some thoughts

We hope you’re enjoying our deep dive into the psychological factors that make up great design. Make sure to check out parts 1–3 to get the full picture, and keep watching the Layout newsletter for the next installment.

Have thoughts on other topics we should explore or a great example of the psychology of design at work? Leave a comment below to let us know!

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