Designing with the brain in mind: a deep dive into neuroaesthetics

Unraveling the intersection of neuroscience and design.

Stylized picture of a brain with  lit up links on dark  background
Midjourney | Martina Sartor

Welcome back to our exploration of neuroaesthetics! In the first part of this series, I began scratching the surface of this intriguing field, exploring the connections between neuroscience and design aesthetics. Today I am diving deeper into neuroaesthetics and its link to product design.

Neuroaesthetics is more than a buzzword; it’s a field of study that enhances our understanding of why we perceive certain designs as more appealing than others. It bridges the gap between the seemingly disparate worlds of neuroscience and aesthetics, offering us a fresh lens through which to understand our responses to the visual world.

As designers, our goal has always been to create products that are not only visually appealing but also resonate deeply with the user. To do this effectively, we need to understand what’s happening beneath the surface — in the intricate wiring of our brains.

In this article, I will delve deeper into the theory of neuroaesthetics, explore how our brains process beauty, and examine the implications of color, symmetry, balance, and shapes in our designs. But I won’t stop at theory; I’ll also look at how we can practically apply these principles in UX/UI design, transforming our newfound knowledge into tangible design strategies.

So let’s find out how neuroscience can empower us to become better designers!

Neuroaesthetics 101: an overview of the intersection of brain science and aesthetics

Neuroaesthetics — it’s a term that combines two distinct realms: neuroscience, the study of the brain and its functions, and aesthetics, the philosophical investigation of beauty and taste. This amalgamation represents a relatively new field of study, born at the fascinating intersection of these domains.

So, what exactly is neuroaesthetics? In essence, it’s the scientific pursuit of understanding how our brains perceive and interpret aesthetics . It seeks to answer questions like: Why are we attracted to certain forms, colors, or compositions? How does our brain respond to beautiful designs? And, most importantly for us as designers, how can we leverage this understanding to create better, more resonant products?

(Anjan Chatterjee. “Neuroaesthetics: a coming of age story.” 2011)

Pioneered by leading neurobiologists such as Semir Zeki, this field moves beyond the subjective nature of aesthetics. It delves into the objective, neurological underpinnings that drive our aesthetic preferences. Zeki’s seminal work has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for understanding the science of beauty and how it influences our everyday life.

(Ishizu, Tomohiro, and Semir Zeki. “Toward a brain-based theory of beauty.”2011)

In neuroaesthetics, we find that our aesthetic preferences may not be as subjective or culturally influenced as we once thought. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that certain aesthetic principles may be universally hardwired into our brains. Concepts like symmetry, balance, color contrast, and even the use of specific shapes appear to have a universal appeal across cultures, implying a common neurological basis.

(Stephen E. Palmer, Karen B. Schloss. An ecological valence theory of human color preference, 2010)

(Arnheim, Rudolf. “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye.” 1974)

This deep dive into the brain’s response to aesthetics is shedding light on our instinctive design preferences and providing an empirical framework to guide our design decisions. As I journey through the world of neuroaesthetics, I’m not only learning about the mechanics of the brain — I’m learning about ourselves, our users, and how to create more engaging, intuitive, and aesthetically pleasing design experiences.

How our brain processes beauty: unearthing the neurological pathways of aesthetic appreciation

The quest to understand beauty isn’t a new one; it’s been pondered by philosophers, poets, and scholars for centuries. But neuroaesthetics offers a fresh perspective, providing us a unique lens to explore the concept of beauty from the inside out, literally.

When we see something beautiful, different parts of our brain work together to process this experience. The orbitofrontal cortex, which helps handle our emotions, gets more active when we see things we find pleasing. At the same time, the visual cortex, which manages the things we see, ‘communicates’ with the orbitofrontal cortex, making the experience even more enjoyable.

There’s also the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that checks how much we value what we’re seeing based on our personal likes and past experiences. And then we have the anterior cingulate cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. They make sure our emotional response fits with the beauty we’re seeing, making the experience even stronger.

(Source and further readings on this topic: Bartels, Andreas, Zeki Semir. The neural basis of romantic love, 2000; Gold, Shadlen The Neural Basis of Decision Making, 2007)

So, our brain isn’t just observing beauty; it’s creating a full, rich experience that’s tied to our emotions and personal tastes. And this process isn’t one-sided. Recognizing beauty can boost our emotions, making us feel happier and improving our overall mood.

But how does this scientific understanding of beauty processing help us as designers? By grasping how our brains react to beauty, we can craft designs that not only look good but also stimulate the right neurological responses, leading to a more positive and engaging user experience.

The power of color in neuroaesthetics: delving into the emotional and cognitive responses to color

If there’s one element of design that immediately strikes our senses, it’s color. It can set the mood, guide our attention, and even influence our emotions. But the impact of color extends beyond the aesthetic domain and delves deeply into our cognitive and emotional processing, a fact reinforced by neuroaesthetic research.

Color perception is a complex process. When light hits an object, it absorbs some wavelengths and reflects others. The reflected wavelengths reach our eyes and stimulate the photoreceptors in the retina, leading to a cascade of neural signals that are eventually interpreted by our brain as specific colors. However, color perception isn’t merely a physical phenomenon; it’s interwoven with our cognition and emotions.

Studies in neuroaesthetics suggest that colors can evoke distinct emotional responses. Warm colors like red and yellow are often associated with feelings of warmth and comfort but can also trigger alertness and urgency. In contrast, cool colors like blue and green tend to elicit feelings of calm and relaxation.

(Stephen E. Palmer, Karen B. Schloss. An ecological valence theory of human color preference, 2010)

These emotional responses to colors can profoundly influence our behavior, an aspect that’s particularly relevant in UX/UI design. For instance, if a website or an app aims to create a soothing user experience, the designer might opt for a color palette dominated by blues and greens. On the other hand, if the aim is to drive action, like prompting users to click on a purchase button, a vibrant red or orange might be more effective.

Beyond emotional responses, colors also influence cognitive processes such as attention and memory. Certain colors or color combinations can make an object or information stand out, improving visibility and recall. A clever use of colors can guide users’ attention to specific elements in a UI design, enhancing usability and interaction.

(Helmut Leder, Marcos Nadal. “Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode — Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics.”, 2014)

Neuroaesthetics provides us with a scientific grounding to understand why certain color choices may be more effective than others. By leveraging the power of color in neuroaesthetics, we as designers can create more engaging and emotionally resonant experiences for our users.

Leveraging the power of color in neuroaesthetics means using the insights we have about how the brain reacts to color to guide our design choices:

  1. Deepening our knowledge of color psychology and neuroaesthetics: The first step for any designer is to understand how color influences our emotions and behaviors. Colors like blues and greens tend to create calming effects, while reds and oranges often evoke excitement and action. We should soak in as much as we can about color theory and neuroaesthetic research — it’s our fundamental toolkit.
  2. Crafting emotional resonance through color: Once we’ve understood how colors trigger emotions, it’s time to employ it strategically. We need to taylor our color choices to the emotional response we’re aiming for. Is our design meant to calm users or drive them to action? The answer to that should directly influence our color palette.
  3. Directing users’ focus with color: Colors don’t just influence our feelings; they also guide our cognitive processes. For instance, contrast can help highlight important elements of our design, improving its overall usability and interaction. We should select our colors to draw attention where we want it most.
  4. Iterating based on feedback: Neuroaesthetics gives us a general idea of how most people respond to colors, but personal variations are inevitable. Once we’ve designed with these principles in mind, we should always gather user feedback and refine accordingly.
  5. Staying updated with neuroaesthetic studies: The research surrounding neuroaesthetics is relatively new and consequently ever-evolving. We must ensure that we stay updated with new findings to continue refining our knowledge.

The role of symmetry and balance: understanding our innate preference for harmony and proportion in design

Design elements like symmetry and balance often seem to add a certain charm and appeal to a design. They are key to creating harmonious and proportionate compositions. But why do our brains find such structures so pleasing?

Symmetry is a ubiquitous pattern in nature, from the bilateral symmetry of animals to the radial symmetry of flowers. It is perhaps due to this pervasive exposure that our brains have evolved a preference for symmetrical structures.

Balance, on the other hand, is more about the equal distribution of visual weight in a design. In a balanced composition, elements do not overpower each other, creating a sense of calm and stability. Our brain instinctively seeks balance and equilibrium, often equating them with a feeling of ‘rightness.’ An unbalanced composition, by contrast, can create tension or disarray, making users feel uncomfortable or disoriented.

(Arnheim, Rudolf. “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye.” 1974)

(Helmut Leder, Marcos Nadal. “Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode — Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics.”, 2014)

In UX/UI design, the principles of symmetry and balance are paramount. A symmetrical layout, for instance, can enhance the visual appeal of an interface and improve usability by making it easier for users to predict where information will be located. Meanwhile balance, or hierarchy, ensures that no part of the design overpowers the others, facilitating intuitive navigation.

While symmetry and balance might seem like purely aesthetic considerations, their influence extends beyond the visual domain and into the realm of user behavior and experience. A balanced, symmetrical design not only appeals to users’ aesthetic sensibilities but can also promote better engagement, navigation, and overall user experience.

By understanding and applying the principles of symmetry and balance from a neuroaesthetic perspective, designers can create more harmonious, user-friendly designs that resonate with users on a deeper, subconscious level. In the following sections, we’ll continue to explore more ways neuroaesthetics can inform and enhance our design decisions.

By leveraging the power of symmetry and balance we can inform our design choices:

  1. We should consider using symmetrical layouts in your designs. Symmetrical layouts are pleasing to the eye and can help establish a sense of harmony and balance. They can be especially useful in web design where information is typically scanned quickly.
  2. Grids are a handy tool for ensuring balance in our designs. They guide the placement of elements and help achieve an even distribution of visual weight.
  3. We should also be mindful of typography. The size, weight, and positioning of text can significantly impact the visual balance of our design.
  4. The use color should also be applied strategically in order to achieve balance. A darker color can appear heavier than a lighter one, and so we must consider this when distributing colors in our design.
  5. Contrast can also be used to create a sense of balance. For example, a large element can be balanced by a smaller one, or a dense cluster of elements can be balanced by an area of white space.
  6. Remember that balance doesn’t always mean perfect symmetry. Asymmetrical balance can create dynamic, interesting designs. It involves balancing different elements (such as a large image with several smaller text blocks) so that no one part of the design overpowers the others.
  7. Use consistent patterns and shapes to create symmetry. This not only makes the design visually appealing but also makes it easier for users to understand the information being presented.
  8. Use symmetry and balance to guide the viewer’s eye. Our eyes are naturally drawn to balanced designs, and you can use this to guide viewers towards important information or actions.

The science of shape and form: exploring the impact of shapes on perception and experience

Shapes and forms play a crucial role in the way we perceive and experience the world around us. Simple geometric figures or intricate forms, every shape we encounter has the potential to evoke an emotional and cognitive response. This is as true in the natural world as it is in the world of design, and it’s here that the study of neuroaesthetics becomes particularly illuminating.

Shapes aren’t just two-dimensional or three-dimensional entities. From a neuroaesthetic perspective, they’re complex stimuli that engage various parts of our brain. For instance, sharp, angular shapes are processed by the region of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with fear and caution. On the other hand, round, soft shapes tend to elicit feelings of comfort and safety, tapping into areas of the brain linked to positive emotions.

(Arnheim, Rudolf. “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye.” 1974)

(Helmut Leder, Marcos Nadal. “Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode — Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics.”, 2014)

The impact of shapes on our perceptions extends into our digital experiences as well. Lets consider, for instance, the role of shapes in UX/UI design. The icons on our phone, the buttons on a website, the form of a logo: all these design elements use shape to communicate meaning and evoke emotion.

Using the right shapes in design can guide a user’s attention, influence their perception, and drive their actions. A sharp, angular logo might communicate dynamism and innovation, perfect for a tech startup. In contrast, a health or wellness app might benefit from the use of rounded, soft shapes to evoke feelings of comfort and safety.

It’s clear that our understanding of shape perception, informed by neuroaesthetics, can have practical applications in UX/UI design. As we continue to bridge the gap between neuroscience and aesthetics, we gain valuable insights into how shapes, like colors, symmetry, and balance, influence user perception and experience. As designers, this allows us to create designs that are not only visually appealing but also cognitively and emotionally resonant.

Practical application in UX/UI design: from theory to practice

Taking our discussion from theory into the realm of application, let’s summarize how we can utilize the principles of neuroaesthetics in UX/UI design. In understanding how our brains process visual elements such as color, shape, symmetry, and balance, we can better shape the user experience.

Color: A key element in any design, the choice of colors can significantly affect a user’s perception and emotional response. By understanding the emotional and cognitive impact of different colors, we can select palettes that align with the desired user experience. For instance, blues and greens, which are often associated with calmness and trust, might be apt for a banking app.

Symmetry and Balance: Our innate preference for harmony and proportion can be leveraged to create aesthetically pleasing and intuitively navigable designs. Balanced and symmetrical layouts can be more appealing and guide the user’s eyes naturally across the interface.

Shape and Form: Shapes are integral in guiding user behavior and communication. Round shapes might be used for buttons that need to stand out, as they evoke comfort and positivity. In contrast, angular shapes, associated with dynamism and precision, might be suited for elements that need to convey accuracy or cutting-edge innovation.

But, as we saw before, neuroaesthetics isn’t a prescriptive science. It doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution but instead serves as an illuminating guide, helping us understand why certain designs resonate more than others. By integrating neuroaesthetic principles into our design process, we can create user experiences that are not just aesthetically pleasing, but also align more closely with our user’s cognitive and emotional needs. As designers, our task is to translate these scientific insights into artful applications, creating designs that truly engage and resonate with the end-user.

The future of design: embracing neuroaesthetics

As we’ve explored the fascinating landscape of neuroaesthetics, one thing is clear: the impact of this field on design is profound and only set to grow. Neuroaesthetics gives us a unique lens to understand why certain designs resonate more than others and how we can leverage this understanding to craft experiences that truly engage and delight users.

The intersection of neuroscience and aesthetics empowers us to design with a deeper appreciation of how our brains respond to beauty and structure. It offers a blueprint for crafting user experiences that go beyond surface-level engagement, touching on the innate preferences ingrained in our neural circuitry.

From color to balance, from symmetry to shape, neuroaesthetics offers us a wealth of insights to guide our design decisions. As we move into the future, embracing these principles can pave the way for more intuitive, engaging, and successful designs.

This exploration is just the beginning. The potential of neuroaesthetics in design is vast, and as we continue to learn more, we can only imagine the possibilities that lie ahead. In this evolving journey, let us continue to probe, experiment, and innovate, always striving to design with both mind and heart.

For more article about neuroaesthetics, tech and product design, make sure to follow me here on Medium!

References and further interesting readings

  • Chatterjee, Anjan. “Neuroaesthetics: a coming of age story.” Journal of cognitive neuroscience 23.1 (2011)
  • Ishizu, Tomohiro, and Semir Zeki. “Toward a brain-based theory of beauty.” PloS one 6.7 (2011)
  • Jacobsen, Thomas, et al. “Brain correlates of aesthetic judgment of beauty.” Neuroimage 29.1 (2006)
  • Leder, Helmut, et al. “A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments.” British journal of psychology 95.4 (2004)
  • Palmer, Stephen E., and Karen B. Schloss. “An ecological valence theory of human color preference.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.19 (2010)
  • Arnheim, Rudolf. “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye.” (University of California Press, 1974)
  • Makin, Alexis D. J., et al. “Symmetry perception and affective responses: A combined EEG/EMG study.” Neuropsychologia 80 (2016)
  • Helmut Leder, Marcos Nadal. “Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode — Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics.”, (2014)
  • Zeki, Semir. “Art and the Brain.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6.6–7 (1999)
  • Ishizu, Tomohiro, and Semir Zeki. “The neural determinants of beauty.” Journal of Neurophysiology 104.6 (2010)
  • Ishizu, Tomohiro, and Semir Zeki. “The neural determinants of abstract beauty.” NeuroImage 119 (2015)
  • Nadal, Marcos. “Neuroaesthetics: The art, science, and brain triptych.” European Psychologist (2023)
  • Palmer, Stephen E., and Karen B. Schloss. “An Ecological Valence Theory of Human Color Preference.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.19 (2010)
  • Arnheim, Rudolf. “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye.” (University of California Press, 1954)

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Designing with the brain in mind: a deep dive into neuroaesthetics was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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