Businesses need to know how design affects the way their products and services are perceived.

We often think about design in terms of how things look and work but it does a lot more than that. In this discussion, Drive member Karen Arnott, of Arnott Design Ltd, explains how her work is supported by her knowledge of psychology and how to work with clients to get the best brief.

We asked Karen to tell us what she’s good at and opened up the questioning.

This is a compilation of a Q&A in the Drive Facebook Group.

Karen ArnottKaren Arnott I’m happy to talk all things design, specifically web design and usability, print design, branding and the design process. I also have interests in work-life balance (reducing anxiety/stress), yoga, fitness, photography (nature and travel).

I’ve lived in Cambridgeshire since I was 8, so am pretty knowledgeable about the local area. I also have a degree in Psychology.


Design for print or screen?

Ann Hawkins I’m always a bit surprised that there is still a demand for print. What industries / sectors are the biggest users?

Karen Arnott I get asked this a lot. Education (of all sectors) still often requires printed materials. And, even where something isn’t physically printed, there is still a demand for PDF or similar to be viewed on screen.

Print also encompasses packaging, which is definitely moving forwards – in terms of environmental considerations.

Companies are exploring plastic alternatives and ensuring paper and inks aren’t damaging to the environment. Consumers are really up to speed on this, and companies need to be at the cutting edge. My job as a designer is to have good relationships with decent printers who can educate me, and therefore my clients.

Andy Boothman Print is a very different experience to online. We’re quite numb in the digital space in general – it takes a lot to impress/remember where as in print you can achieve strong stand out more easily at times, depending on your audience and sector.

Berenice Smith Print books still outsell digital in reference/academic and educational publishing. I agree with you Andy and Karen that done well, it can be incredibly compelling and even more so if care is taken over the environment.

How does psychology impact design?

Louise Lee Do you use any elements of your degree in design work?

Karen Arnott How people use a website is hugely related to psychology. How we behave changes over time, and how people interact with technology has massively changed in recent years. Keeping on top of how people use websites is all psychology.

In other aspects of design, it’s definitely there in things like colour theory and perception. Having call to actions on websites and printed materials often use colour (and other symbols) to influence user behaviour.

On top of colour considerations, you have to consider colour blindness. This is also an aspect of design (and an unknown element of psychology – I did a whole year on how the eye/brain work!)

Other aspects of psychology in design would be include elements that extend into sociology – gender, families, religion / culture, age…you have to consider these appropriately when designing anything. (Mainly – would this offend any particular group, either directly or indirectly by omission). An example of this would be a bathroom brochure featuring too many photos of naked women – you could alienate 50% of the decision makers there!

Briefing a designer 

Louise Lee When it comes to briefing a designer, what information does a client need to give you?

Karen Arnott Their budget 🤣

Seriously though, budget is important because it prevents both parties wasting their time.

Aside from that (and I do appreciate many people don’t know how much ‘design’ costs), it’s important they’ve looked at their ideal client, their competition, and exactly what they want to achieve. Often people think they ‘need’ a flyer, but perhaps a decent social media campaign would work better.

People often think of certain price points because they’ve seen things offered for that elsewhere. I think budget is a question that needs to be broached quite quickly. In the same way we generally don’t go to a car showroom without doing our research first. We know we can’t afford a Ferrari with a Fiesta budget.

If you have the conversation early on, they can do their research and come back to you later (hopefully – especially the mega bucks in the bank client you mentioned earlier).

I think it’s also important to demonstrate that anything is possible and manage expectations. If they do only have £500 for a website, outlining what they can have for that – i.e. it’s not going to look and behave like

The best way to do that is with examples – here’s a £1500 website, and here’s one that was £5000. They can then see the difference a bigger budget can make.

With printed design, such as a brochure, it’s a bit more complicated. They really need to know what they want to achieve with it, what the important messages are, and work with a copywriter to ensure that design and content are aligned. The worst situations are where a client has written reams of information (in their own words) and wants a designer to shoehorn it into something beautiful. It just doesn’t work. The messaging and design must work as a partnership. I would ideally be able to brief a copywriter about how much space they have to play with and show them some mock ups. Then, the content is worked on to best get the messaging in place. The designer then comes into play with the aesthetics to enhance the message.

Ann Hawkins In your many years of experience, is it easier to work with large companies or small businesses, in terms of understanding what’s possible, getting paid, sticking to the brief etc?

Karen Arnott Generally, larger companies have bigger budgets, an understanding that good design is a legitimate cost, and tend to understand what’s possible as they work with several designers or agencies. However, they often don’t pay on time and in larger companies the number of decision makers goes up and can cause communication issues.

Smaller companies, and one-person bands, are generally lovely. They’ve often come to me on personal recommendation (sometimes this is already with an idea of budget required, which is a bonus). However, with owner-managers, they are sometime too attached to what they feel the design should look like, as it’s so close to them. It can be difficult to persuade them away from bad design ideas.

My favourite clients are often good agencies, who are used to working with a multitude of design and marketing consultants. Agencies have already briefed the client, can brief the designer accurately, stick to the plan and pay on time.

The hardest ones are the ones that come with a sketch (that’s great for an initial idea), but then go through the motions of letting me come up with something, then just want their sketch made professionally.

Another example was where the client just kept saying they didn’t like the design, but couldn’t articulate why. When I pushed them, they eventually said they didn’t like the pattern on the shirt of the model in the stock image (which I’d already said were placeholders). They then went on to say, “just make the design pop”. Ouch – that’s one for the ‘what clients say’ bingo scores!

One client asked me to give it the ‘wow factor’. I did have a chuckle in my frustration 🙂

My parting thought would simply be that design doesn’t exist in a silo. It’s important to include your designer in the whole process, so that they can fully understand the business goals. And, if written English isn’t one of your finest skills, to think about engaging a copywriter to work with the designer. It really does make a huge difference – design isn’t just making things look pretty, design can really enhance the communication goals, if done well.

Would you like to know more about Karen? Visit Arnott Design or follow her on Twitter @karenarnott.