Design: 6 Psychology tricks to help you design emails

Posted on January 15, 2018 at 3:00 pm Written by

brainA little while ago I wrote a relatively whimsical post about the meanings of colours. There was a cheeky quiz and then I put all the results (except the unprintable ones) into a wacky infographic. It was fun and insightful and I’d like to try it again on a different topic.

If you just want the fun bit (and who could blame you), skip straight to the quiz:

But if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to solve something that has been bothering me for over a year. An important question I’m sure you’ll agree…

What was the colour orange called before oranges (the fruit) were imported to Britain?

This is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night. As I’m writing this, I don’t know the answer. I imagine it was called Terracotta. Or Saffron. Or Burnt Umber, Sienna or Cadmium. Rust. What about Rust? Rust has been an orange thing since the Iron Age surely?

Oranges as we know them today are the sweet-orange variety, not the bitter variety that had been around since about the ninth century. According to Wikipedia, the word entered Late Middle English in the fourteenth century via Old French orenge (in the phrase pomme d’orenge). If you’re interested, Wikipedia has a lot more to say on the matter. I have to say my interest swiftly became fleeting.

Anyway, before the English-speaking world was introduced to the fruit, the colour orange was referred to as “geoluread”. This sounds rather outlandish, but sadly just translates to “yellow-red”. I was pretty disappointed by this outcome.

Well that’s that sorted then. Now for the title-piece:

What, I hear you ask, do I mean by the psychology of design? Essentially, I want to help you consider certain principles to help better understand your audience. For me, when designing a user interface, I need to understand our users – what are they trying to achieve? When designing an email campaign one needs to understand the intended audience – what do they need to understand or do when reading your email?

There is some degree of crossover with sales psychology, essentially because we’re trying to do the same thing – design can be thought of as “selling” whatever you’re illustrating.

All psychology has degrees of crossover because it’s all psychology! It’s all in your head…

What have we got to work with?
I’ve picked out a few choice principles of design psychology. Weird as they may seem, these are real considerations for designers on a day to day basis.

The Von Restorff Effect: Sore thumbs stick out

bananasThe Von Restorff effect is named after the spectacularly named psychiatrist Hedwig von Restorff. Even pre-Potter, that’s a name with a feather in its cap. It’s also called the Isolation Effect, which sounds a bit dark. Anyway, the basic premise is: things that stand out from their peers are more memorable.

Note that this isn’t necessarily about isolating a single product on a backdrop – you can show that one thing stands out from the other, similar things around it by making them sacrificially less interesting.

What does this boil down to?
When designing an email, you’ll often want your subscribers’ eyes to be drawn to one place in particular. This will often be the star product, the big offer – or just the Call to Action. So what do you do? Make it stand out from everything else with a contrasting colour and/or style. Don’t overuse this effect in a single design or you’ll risk creating confusion.

Gestalt Principles: Stuff is related

The Gestalt Principles were developed by German psychologists in the 1920s to describe the ways that our brains assume relatedness to visuals based on similarity, proximity and whitespace. The brain loves to take shortcuts and make assumptions that the world around us has been well thought out.

There are five Gestalt Principles, but I’m only going to touch upon the first two in this blog. You can read more about all of them here.


grouped fruitThings placed near each other will seem to be related. You probably know this already! In fact you probably already use this principle with image captions or article headings. The close proximity of these different elements helps the brain group them and see them as part of a whole.


similar dogsThings that look similar or the same will seem to be related. If you have two different offers, consider making them different colours and/or laying them out differently to help people distinguish between them.

What does this boil down to?
People will make assumptions about what they see and find meaning in things that may or may not actually be there. With this in mind it’s really important to be intentional about what graphics you put in an email and how you space them out and make them seem different (if they are unrelated!).

Pattern Matching: That looks like a dog (I’ve seen dogs before)

When we look at something, we’re subconsciously hunting for familiar visual stimuli.

If you know what a dog looks like then you know this is a dogIf we can match a pre-existing pattern we recognise what we are seeing, otherwise it is perceived as new. This process also triggers any cognitive associations with the pattern being matched. So if you see a dog, you’ll start to think about dogs you’ve seen before.

Buttons are a curious offshoot of pattern matching into skeuomorphism – why do buttons look like their physical counterparts? What makes skeuomorphic buttons more clickable than a simple underlined text link? What is a “button” (in digital terms) when it comes right down to it?

Familiar ButtonsIn my opinion it comes down to knowing your audience. Some people need to be led by the nose to a big button that screams “Click me (‘cause I’ll make you happy baby yeah)”. Others are turned off by such obviousness – these people click an underlined link or an image. As such it’s easy to cater for both by including a variety of ways to get people where you want to take them.

What does this boil down to?
People like olds, not news; show them what they expect and they’ll know what to do with it. Make sure buttons look like buttons and links look like links

Facial Recognition: People buy people

Following on from pattern matching, there is no pattern we recognise more strongly than a human face. The deep level of subtlety in facial recognition is fascinating. Our semi-conscious ability to read faces means we can tell a fake smile a mile off. This is all down to our instinctive need to a) identify another human and b) to read their facial expression to determine friend or foe.

shiny happy peopleIn design, faces can be used either to draw attention or set the mood. Someone happy and smiling will convey a sense of welcome – and the more authentic the better!

I’m sure this all seems very obvious, so I have one interesting titbit you might not know: More aggressive faces get more attention, as demonstrated in a study where participants eyes were typically drawn to unhappy faces in a group of people.

Presumably this stems from earlier times (or walking through town at 3am when the clubs kick out), when predicting the intentions of others was the difference between avoiding a threat and walking into danger.

What does this boil down to?
People are drawn to faces, so use people in your imagery where possible to provoke the reaction you require.

Social Influence: Psychology to Persuade

This is more like it, right? Buy a bag of carrots and find a good-sized stick, we’re going donkey-whupping.

Turns out, no. Just have a think about using one of the following in your campaigns. I’m paraphrasing here from this in-depth post by Elisa del Galdo. Each of the six principles of social influence can trigger an emotional response:


free hugsWe feel obliged to return favours. Give something for nothing and people might feel they owe you.


We look to experts to advise us on what’s best. If you can build up a reputation for knowledge in your field, people will look to you to guide them. You can turn guiding into steering, then worship. Soon you could end up with your very own cult. If that sounds like a little too much, just bask in the glory of your expertise driving your customers to buy what you’re selling.


pineappleWe want to act consistently with our commitments and values, so pitch to a certain lifestyle or conscience. Targeting can be key here if you have a wide audience.


The less available a resource, the more we want it. The classic “while stocks last” is a mild incentive, but it’s all in the sales lingo. Imply scarcity and deals and people will riot. Black Friday sales are a great recent example of this.


choosing shoesThe more we like people, the more we want to say yes to them. If you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you. Comes back to reciprocation.

Social Proof

We look to others to guide our behaviour. Think of Amazon’s “People who bought this also bought” section, or reviews of any product or service. We want to know that other people enjoy something before we try it ourselves.

What does this boil down to?
Care and attention is needed when applying the above principles, but they can be incredibly effective when used well. You’re reading this, aren’t you?

Hick’s Law: Too much jam is bad

JamLet’s finish up with my favourite. Yes, the sugary content means that too much jam is probably bad for you, but what I should have said is: having too many types of jam to choose from equates to less jam being sold. It’s not about the jam, and I’m sorry I mislead you there. It’s about having too much choice. Despite the name Hick’s Law sadly also has nothing to do with ‘gators, trailer parks or having 7 fingers on each hand. Or jam.

too much jamHick’s Law states that the more options one has, the longer it takes to make a decision. Most people when asked claim they would like more options in a decision-making scenario, but their behaviour illustrates the opposite. In extreme cases it’s so hard to decide we’ll opt to not to decide at all.

Jam becomes involved in a classic study undertaken by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper in 2000. They used a jam tasting display in a food market with two configurations – one with 24 different jams and the other with only 6. They found with the 24 jam options, 60% of people passing tried the jam and 3% of them purchased. With the 6 jams, a lesser 40% of people stopped but almost 30% purchased.

just 2 choicesOther non-jam-related studies have confirmed this result.

What does this boil down to?
Don’t give people too many choices. In your email campaigns, one clear call to action is best. If you have to have more than one, try two.


Hey what about that quiz you mentioned?

Well, I got a little more caught up on topic than I expected to. My attention span is usually much shorter! Here it is:

Try to answer quickly and instinctively. Remember that there are no wrong answers. Everyone’s a winner, but in the interests of equality, there are no prizes bar a sense of smug self-satisfaction.

Follow Tom Scott on Twitter

Tom Scott

Digital Designer & UI Architect at NewZapp


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