Design is everywhere, both good and bad. The trick is in intentionally designing. In 1955, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss published Designing for People. The book introduced the idea of human-centered design and ergonomics. Using data from the military and fashion industries, Dreyfuss drew diagrams of the typical man and woman, arguing that products should align with these typical body types, their range of movement, etc.

Today, the practice of design extends far beyond the body and ergonomics to encompass emotions, human psychology, and culture. If you can observe it, understand it, and articulate it, you can design for it.

Human beings are social creatures, finely attuned to social cues. Perhaps trust can be seen as among the most important components of successful interactions, as the social glue that unites (or divides) people. We form bonds, create relationships, and base our interactions on this amorphous concept of “trust.” It finds expression in and is validated by body posture, a look in the eyes, even smell. Oxytocin is a chemical released by people in moments of intimacy. To arrive at intimacy, you first need trust.

But when the interface between two people is mediated by a piece of glass or a computer screen, millions of years of subtle evolutionary cues become unavailable. They go unused. Yet, it’s still critical that our communications attend to this essential dimension of human connection.

One of the branches of design that directly addresses this question is the field of “persuasive design.” This field of thought is based on the fact that most of us make snap judgments—we don’t stop, think, and consider all of our choices. Just as our ancestors weren’t “stopping, thinking, then acting” when a bear was attacking, our social responses are likewise streamlined to work largely on auto-pilot.

There are a number of principles you can apply in any design communication to improve the level of trust a visitor may have:

Be clear

This means your language, claims, and visuals should convey clarity. When you think about it, anyone who states who they are and what they want already seems more trustworthy than someone who dissembles.

Visual appeal matters

People generally make judgements in a fraction of a second. When Google analyzes the performance of websites, those with clear hierarchies, good typography, and abundant whitespace are deemed much more usable. Similar research has shown that complex, busy layouts are associated with dishonesty. Again, think of the person who communicates plainly and clearly versus the person who seems to be saying one thing but means another. Visual appeal can skew one way or the other.

Establish order

Similarly, visual hierarchy can enhance the feeling of clarity, or muddy the waters. This applies not only from a graphic design perspective, but also from the perspective of content. Is your visual hierarchy clear and understandable? And does your content, headlines, and body copy reflect this? I suspect you’re starting to see a pattern.

Be mindful

Lastly, be respectful of people’s time and attention. It’s a finite quantity. Design your communications in a way that’s respectful, and that anticipates the actions people want to take. Just like in real life, don’t be a bore and don’t waste people’s time.

— Effective communication and design flows from a clear understanding of who you are as an organization, what you stand for, and where you have something special to offer people. —

While these principles are good rules of thumb for any design communications effort, there’s another dimension that must be noted. We’ve found that effective communication and design flows from a clear understanding of who you are as an organization, what you stand for, and where you have something special to offer people. That’s why at Story+Structure, we always begin our engagements with a discovery activity that allows us to deeply learn about you and the people you serve.



You may be wondering about the image at the top. In WWI, in an attempt to confuse submarines, ships were painted with wacky patterns, termed “dazzle dazzle.” Unlike traditional camouflage, these patterns were meant not to conceal the ships, but to restrict combat enemies from being able to identify the craft, accurately estimate distance, and ultimately to prevent direct hits to the craft. In so many words, dazzle dazzle was about creating confusion and mistrust. Results were mixed.

At the end of the day, while you can individually apply the principles of “persuasive design” discussed above, we’ve found they naturally arise when the foundational, strategic work is done right. So instead of trying to “dazzle” your audience with technique, we prefer to start with substance.