You are here

Design for the Unconscious: Use Design Secrets to Create Great Websites

When designing websites, you may think about what you personally like about websites, how people prefer the websites to work, or what you need to remember about your website as a professional.

The thing is, you also need to think about how the unconsciousness of your visitors is affected by your website and how you can improve your website to make their experience better, because the unconscious mind affects how people act.

What is the unconscious?

Though the unconscious in its general sense is described as:

"an abstract, silent, completely unified field of consciousness" within "an architecture of increasingly abstract, functionally integrated faculties or levels of mind" (guess the source, starts with W)

for our little design niche, we'll prolong the description by adding

"ultimately controlling most of the person's actions and influenced by his/her surroundings"

It means that whatever person sees, hears or otherwise experiences influences so many receptors that the person can adequately notice only a small part of the signals, leaving the unconscious mind free to hint him/her in any direction of action.

Of course, the person will be able to rationalize the reasoning behind his actions, when influenced by his unconsciousness, but most likely, the reasons will not describe the signals, but the inner motivation, which was prompted by the surroundings and his mind.

So, a person's unconsciousness is affected, when he/she:

  • first views your website
  • starts reading the material on the website
  • experiences other content on your website
  • navigates around the site, noticing how fast it loads
  • gets into action, such as subscribing to your newsletter, buying something, etc
  • gets any response from the website
  • continues to interact with the website, its owner and visitors

So how exactly does one take the unconscious into account?

What influences the unconscious

Given that the unconscious receives all the signals the surroundings send to the person, basically anything can and will affect it, regardless of whether the person has noticed it, obviously.

Thus, for us, people affecting site design, it is important that anything appearing on the website, from the opening to the ending html tag, affects our visitors and it is our job to make sure they are at least not turned off from the site, but also enjoy staying and interacting with it.

The range of factors, influencing the unconscious can be categorized in:

  • words
  • actions (both by and to the visitor)
  • visuals
  • thoughts
  • previous experience
  • (for the record, the real world also includes
    • smell
    • sound
    • touch)

It means that for every element on the site, we need to consider how the unconscious will be affected by it and how we can improve it for people to get a pleasant experience.

Let's discuss the points in more detail.


Naturally, what we read affects our emotions. And not only that. So when designing websites for the people (apart from having great content at all), we need to remember to use the words that people can:

  • understand
  • relate to
  • experience positive emotions from

Though some may argue that an unknown word still influences in subconscious, a known word that a person has previous experience with will have a much larger impact.

If apart from understanding the text, the visitor can get specific thoughts and ideas, jumping from the particular choice of words, then his experience becomes more complete. In my opinion, words more precisely describing what the text is about and the people reading it, is most suitable for such experience.

Aside from creating a positive experience, words can be used to influence the reader. Here steps in persuasive copywriting, which implies that copywriters need to use words, motivating the visitor to take action. Naturally, it leads us to persuasive design, which describes action.


The visit to a website is prompted by a need of some sort, be it a need for information, something you use. On the other hand, while person's needs still influence some decisions on the website, his mind is also influenced by the factors.

Likewise, as it was mentioned, carefully put words can keep the person reading a piece of text or take action. By carefully wording link text (both in navigation and context links), you can make sure the person only visits the pages he really wants to read.

And, since we speak about actions, what and how one does on the website influences his experience, too.

For example, if the visitor succeeds or fails in performing certain actions on your website, he will get the corresponding attitude towards your website. This is pretty obvious, though.

But another thing to remember is that people can be swayed by someone they trust. So a recommendating from other people or an email from a friend using the product will always change your attitude towards the product.

So, you not only need to make sure that your website works, but that any mentions of any actions on the website are related to using and enjoying your product (naturally, customer testimonials are a great way to do this).

Apart from words and actions, images can have an impact on your mind, too.


Visuals come not only from the images, but also from visual design, and not just graphic design.


Looking at an image allows you to experience what is shown there, be it a tasty, sizzling steak, a sunny grass meadow or a beautiful flower. You can almost taste the steak, breathe the fresh air and smell the flower.

What this means for you is that you need to use images and also use them wisely:

While irrelevant images are ignored and only waste visitor time and attention, relevant images show what you have to offer and may as well remove some doubts about buying the product.

Image quality allows you to show the product better, as well as the overall site quality. Products of high detail require images of better quality, while smaller, predictable things do not. Also, you need to remember about the dark side of image quality: file size.

Optimizing images for the Web is a must nowadays, as it allows you to make your site load faster. Not only you need to find the balance between image quality and file size just for your product, but you also need to use the right software.

There is a lot of image optimization software on the market, some of it reduces file size more noticeably, than just "Saving for Web" in Photoshop.

As site design is another thing that the visitor sees, it is also important, mostly the little things being more important than otherwise.

Site design

Visual design also plays a role on how visitors perceive the company, product and influences their decisions. It is not only about the first impression, but also how things look together.

For example, such simple things as the right use of alignment and whitespace can turn half-designs into great work.

When a visitor reads the text, navigates around and absorbs your site, he should certainly be thinking of something. Hopefully about buying your product.

Also, using natural colors in site design allows a smooth browsing experience, allowing you to distinguish elements, guide and inspire your visitors.


Just as everything affects the unconscious, the unconscious affects the thoughts you and your visitors are thinking. That's why you need to make sure the above elements on your site only contribute to the positive and efficient experience.

Naturally, by making people think about the problems your product solves, it gives them another reason to agree that your product is useful and is worth buying. It also gives them another thought of valuing the experience they get on your site, if they enjoy the process.

You can help people start their train of thought by providing useful, controversial, education, entertaining or even educational-entertaining content. Mainly, you'd consider such content to be great content.

Of course, call to action is the most powerful way to inspire people to take action, though.

Sometimes, thoughts can be prompted by previous experience.


In my opinion, we severely underestimate how our actions are guided by our previous experience. We are affected by our upbringing, our life experience, beliefs, principles and so on. How to make sure that people actually take action on your website?

Just as with anything, keeping everything in sync what site visitor's needs will help.

You can also hint at various habits or tastes people might have. For example, offering items, related to already bought items, or things people, who have bought the product, have ordered might trigger a habit of ordering complimentary items, becides just reminding the visitor that he needs something.

Another moment is to keep site navigation and elements consistent with most sites on the Web. Sounds anti-innovational, but people spend most of their time on other websites. If you do want to innovate, how about making your website extremely useful to use?

Steve also thinks that designing for visitor performance can help. Technically, this is the same as improving site usability: the idea is to make each site action as efficient as possible.

How to design for the unconscious?

Marco Dorantes says that in order to create an unconscious design, one has to design unconsciously. Here's the definition of "unconscious design" as a verb:

The action of designing and the outcome of such an action that fulfils functional requirements and simultaneously is unaware of any in-context or temporal implications of its properties.

As also noted, professionals can "produce unconscious designs but with temporal properties attached to them, temporal unconscious designs". Professionals take into account the temporal influences, which change over time, which explains why designs age.

I'd also add that website professionals know that everything influences the people, so they pay special attention to every site element: everything should be focused on the site goal.

That's why solid web builders (not just designers) know

Designing easy to use websites greatly contributes to the overall website experience, which not only affects the subconscious mind, but may also become obvious to the conscious mind, if the website has been greatly improved.

Why design for the unconscious?

Of course, the main reason to take all aspects into account, when creating websites, is to make sure customers gain a better understanding of the offer, can navigate better around the website, as well as get more reasons, both conscious and unconscious, to buy the product.

Another reason is that search engines (alright, Google) become more and more sophisticated. They learn to understand intent behind search queries (also including locations) and also understand how users rate web content and apply their knowledge to the results.

All this becomes possible, when people provide precise, detailed information on websites. On one hand, this may cause privacy issues, but can also enhance user experience, both on the website and when using third party web services.

For example, take a look at this video from (15+ min). It shows a glimpse of how bits of information about people can show a deep picture of the Web, a close look in a person's life or a broader view on the situation.

The examples of which are when the software collects instances of phrases "I feel" or "I am feeling" and tries to associate location and web content with the user.

Now, not that we do everything for the search engines, but it shows that sufficient information can allow people make reasonable decisions, enjoy the Web and get more from it.

This is pretty simple

All that said, it may seem the thing is pretty complex and can't be mastered. But if you understand that people follow certain habits when viewing websites, such as the F pattern or following the scent of information, as well as focus on delivering value to the customers, they will be receiving plenty of positive signals from your website.

I call this creating natural websites. It means knowing the people and designing for them. Pretty simple.

Read more:

Liked the article? Subscribe to get more and bookmark it on Thank you.



Sorry, but you lost me with "Design for the Unconscious:" The only reason I went any further was to see how deeply the ignorance ran. Deep, apparently. I don't care how many references you cite (two, from quick glance) or the credentials behind those references: wrong is wrong. I would rather design for the sub-conscious mind than the unconscious mind. Designing for the unconscious mind seems to me to be about equivalent to designing for the dead! I know I never make decisions unconsciously... but admit to making some of my hardest decisions after much sub-conscious thought.

I think subconscious and unconscious is the same, depending on from what point of view you look at these things. Unconscious mind is a mind, not noticed by the conscious mind. Same as what you'd consider as 'subconscious' mind. The difference between the two and the conscious mind is that it doesn't see (notice, comprehend, etc) it. So there's no difference between subconscious and unconscious minds in regards to this post.

I hate to link to Wikipedia, but here it is:
Unconscious Mind: Wikipedia. That's where the first quote came from.

In comparison, "Subconscious" seems to determine what is in the mind, but what the person isn't thinking about it. Though my points slightly touched on this, my main point was about influencing the person's feelings, emotions, previous experience with words and actions. This seems to be vastly different from the "subconscious mind"

Thanks for the comment.

Btw, other than your disagreement on terms, what do you think about the post? Do you take subtle aspects of web design into account or just 'wham whack bum' and its ready?

A very detailed explanation and I got quite a no. of tips from this post! 1 Plug for you! :)

Intriguing article, Yuri.

There's not a whole lot talked about this subconscious/unconscious aspect of site design, so your article fascinated me.

As someone who has studied and applies the laws of influence and persuasion on the Internet, I completely understand how design plays a big factor.

Seth Godin recently hinted at this in post about Role models. We tend to models our websites and blogs on other people's sites and blogs - a subconscious (or unconscious) process we're not always aware of.


Paul Hancox

P.S: If you have a spare moment, pop over to my site and post a comment, because I'd really appreciate it!

You blinked and missed the point.

Alex, thanks.

Paul, yeah, I haven't noticed many articles about it, though I referenced as many as I could in the post.

I can't say that all sites are after models, but some do follow some well known websites, such as MS, Dell, etc. Thanks for the link to Seth.

Anon, care to clarify?

Thanks for submitting this interesting article to The Designed Web :), your link has been published!

Good design directs the unconscious mind around the page and brings important elements into your conscious mind. However, simple interfaces work so well because the conscious mind can instinctively understand the process on the screen.

Josh, by saying "conscious mind can instinctively understand the process on the screen" you proved my point. Ease of use goes well with the unconscious, so the conscious mind doesn't need to think much, when using an easy tool, such as a website or a piece of software.

Also, the perceived (by the unconscious) ease of use creates a positive signal to the unconscious that the site is good and worth using. If the site is absolutely easy to use, this can go to the surface and will be noted by the conscious mind, but still, the preference of the unconscious mind ("I like this site") will prevail.

Thanks for stopping by :)

Add new comment