Design Influences Behavior – McLuhan and Web Design

It is commonplace among marketers and web designers that design exists to deliver content. John Moore Williams, writing for Webflow, recently stated that, “design’s ultimate role is to present content in an intuitive, efficient, and ‘delightful’ way.”

The statement is true as far as it goes. Web design should present your content in a clear and easy-to-digest way. But many go further, saying things like ‘design itself does not sell.’ That is taking a true principle and taking it too far. Design does sell, and it does so much more. It influences behavior and creates an environment that shapes expectations.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian philosopher, understood this better than most – even before the creation of the internet. He is most famous for the idea that the medium is the message. That is, the form of the message influences how it will be received and understood. The same content put in a book, read over the radio, or placed on a designed web page will be received differently – the medium is inseparable from the message.

The Web as Environment

“Environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.”

Marshall McLuhan

The internet is an environment in which most modern people live and move. As such, we no longer consciously observe that environment. It is “quite as imperceptible to us as water is to fish.” (McLuhan, Counterblast)

As the digital world continues to dominate our lives (see the rise of ‘smart’ appliances), this imperceptibility will only become stronger. We are native to a digital environment and notice it no more than we notice the air around us. Up to this point, this is all philosophical and ethereal – but it has direct and important implications for web design – and I’ll get them eventually, I promise.

The Influence of Environment

Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously.

Marshall McLuhan

Environments may be imperceptible, but that does not mean they can be ignored. The environment around us shapes our thought patterns and influences our behavior. All the environments in which we live our lives – geographical, familial, cultural, and digital – have a profound impact on us. Because this process is largely unobserved, it is all the more powerful.

Individuals access the internet with certain expectations – about how to navigate, how they will be advertised to, and content will be presented to them. It is work of a good web designer to get outside the stream and understand these expectations. Escaping your environment is difficult (and impossible to do perfectly), but it is a necessity to properly understand your design choices.

McLuhan and Web Design

It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behaviour.

Marshall McLuhan

So, what is the web designer to do with Marshall McLuhan? The first step is to realize that he is right – separating design from content is a mistake. They must work together to present a message that is coherent to a user immersed in the environment of the web. It must play on expectations to communicate the intended content. There is no such thing as neutral design – every decision will influence how the message is received by a digital native.

The second is to understand that environments can be worked with or against. Adapting your design to fit the environment will be easily digestible but largely inseparable from the mass of other websites. That might be a good thing, depending on your goals and needs. But for some websites, there needs to be something more. In this case, environmental standards can be bucked to create a startling juxtaposition in the minds of users. McLuhan again, “the role of the artist is to create an anti-environment as a means of perception and adjustment.” (McLuhan, The Book of Probes).

Obsessive Web Design

I worry that I might have bored all of you, so thank you for making it this far (unless you just skipped to the end). But this sort of discussion is the thing that gets us excited here at Fusion Group USA. We aren’t satisfied with building mediocre websites that blindly follow the latest trends. We dissect our process, renew our thinking, and strive to understand our craft as best as possible.

It might be boring to a lot of people, but that’s just who you want to build your website. I take my car to a mechanic that loves cars, I buy my produce from a farmer who loves the earth, and you should get a website from people who have a passion for web design. If you need a website that isn’t just another cookie-cutter design, Fusion Group USA is here to help! Contact us today and our team of web developers can build you something that stands out.

Leave a Reply