The Three levels of Visual Design and How Designers can apply these to build Emotion

The Three levels of Visual Design and How Designers can apply these to build Emotion

We have long known that when people are anxious they tend to narrow their thought processes, concentrating upon aspects directly relevant to a problem. This is a useful strategy in escaping from danger, but not in thinking of imaginative new approaches to a problem. On the other hand, results show that when people are relaxed and happy, their thought processes expand, becoming more creative, more imaginative.

These and related findings suggest the role of aesthetics in product design: attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that make something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter.

Don Norman’s Three levels of Visual Design

Don Norman, an advocate of human-centered designs and internet interaction has identified three levels of visual design that designers can apply to build emotions into their products.

These three levels are based on the way our brains function and can be seen as guide to a more appealing, effective, pleasurable and memorable design.

Donald Norman describes three aspects of design: Visceral design (‘concerns itself with appearances’), Behavioral design (‘has to do with the pleasure and effectiveness of use’), and Reflective design (‘considers the rationalization and intellectualization of a product’). It turns out this is also an interesting way to explain the different applications of visual design in products.



The most commonly understood aspect of visual design is visceral things that make you look pretty. The visceral level works instinctively, and both our personality and cultural values can influence how we perceive something. Reactions to the visceral level of design are immediate and powerful. It takes only a second to determine if the ‘look and feel’ of a product appeals you. The visceral quality of a design can be studies by observing people’s first impression. A good visceral design makes us feel happy and ideally getting us excited.

The Balazskoch design has no other function than to catch people’s attention.


Behavioral design is all about use. According to Norman, appearance doesn’t matter, performance does. He states that visceral design is the domain for graphic artists and behavioral design is bread and butter of usability engineers. What matters on this level is function, performance and the physical feel of something. A visual design would need to feature relevant functions that fulfill actual needs. Behavioral design needs to be understandable and usable. Again, in behavioral design: ‘after function comes understanding’.

And to ensure a good behavioral design, you have to really know your user’s needs. for example, by observing how they interact with the design in the field.


On the reflective level, we interpret and understand things, we reason about the world, and we reflect on ourselves. The reflective level sets in after having been exercised, and it dominates the other two levels, which means that through extensive reasoning, we can overrule both automated behavior and emotional impact.

The reflective design defines our overall impression of a product, since we reflect on all aspects of it: messages sent, cultural aspects, the meaning of the product and whether it’s worth remembering.

So, the appearance of a design makes up only one level of visual design the visceral design. The behavioral level relates to how the product works, and the reflective level relates to the long-term impact of the design. Combining these three levels in the right way, you can make a design.

. Appealing

Grab the user’s attention and influence their perception.

. Effective

Guide the user’s attention and make sure they find what they are looking for.

. Pleasurable

Allow the user to appreciate your website and have fun.

. Memorable

Build a relationship with the user and ensure a positive memory of you.

Visual design is much more powerful when it encompasses all three levels of design in a single product.