Stimulate by Design

Ron Huber

Website Design

Your Web visitors know great design when they see it, instantly in fact. Some studies suggest it takes a fraction of a second for them to make up their mind about a website.

We believe this decisive instant when visitors decide if your website must be explored or evacuated is equivalent to the Gruen Transfer, a controversial term borrowed from the world of environmental psychology and shopping malls.

The Gruen Transfer is defined as the moment when consumers first respond to deliberate cues in the shopping mall environment. Consumers respond favorably because of unconscious influences of lighting, ambient sound and music, spatial choices, visual detail, mirrored and polished surfaces, climate control, and the sequence and order of interior storefronts.

The Gruen Transfer is named for Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen. Born in 1903, Gruen immigrated to the United States when Nazi Germany took over Austria in 1938. He landed "with an architect's degree, eight dollars, and no English."

In 1951 he founded Victor Gruen Associates, and as an urban planner was instrumental in formulating master plans for such cities as Fort Worth, Tex., Kalamazoo, Mich., Cincinnati, Ohio, and Fresno, Calif. He passed away in 1980.

But Gruen is best known as the father of the modern fully enclosed, temperature-controlled shopping mall. Of course, indoor multi-vendor shopping is not a recent innovation. The Grand Bazaar in Isfahan, Iran, which is largely covered, dates from the 10th century A.D. The Burlington Arcade in London was opened in 1819, the Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island in 1828, and the larger Galleria in Milan, Italy followed in the 1860s. Many other large cities created malls in the late 19th century and early 20th century along similar lines.

What Gruen designed was the first fully enclosed mall, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, which opened in 1956. His impetus to invent a shopper's paradise was to rescue the suburbs from the decentralization of Main Street. Gruen designed dozens of enclosed malls in the US and, ironically, dozens of the downtown pedestrian malls meant to compete with them.

This is controversial because social critics like Aaron Betsky, author of "Architecture Must Burn," refers to the Gruen Transfer as the moment at which a mall shopper who has come to buy one thing in one store, "becomes so overwhelmed by the wondrous labyrinth of the place that she or he starts wandering aimlessly, consuming all along the way." Detractors often mention about terms like "jaw dropping and eyes glazed over".

While this mindless zombie view of mall shoppers is a little over the top, it does raise the question: what design elements are used to stimulate specific emotional effects in the buyer that enhance purchase probability? These techniques are based on environmental psychology and the concepts of behaviorism and classical conditioning.

For example, mall cookie shops pipe out the smell of their baking ovens to pull in customers. Shops often have soft rugs that contrast sharply with the hard tile of the mall's walkways, encouraging customers to stay and shop. Countertops in clothing stores are as large as possible, so as to encourage more purchases.

While history has proven that these techniques are not enough to turn shoppers into drones, they have measurably improved retail results. These same principles of the Gruen Transfer can be applied to the information age and website design. Just as Stimulus-Response Cues are applied in the physical environment, variations of these same cues can be incorporate into the website environment.

Stimulate Your Website

Which brings us back to the topic of stimulating your website visitors by design. Here are four strong recommendations on how to stimulate your Web visitors with design.

Invest in Professional Photography

This is the best money you will spend on your website. Good color photography, as opposed to clip art or obvious stock photography, builds trust with website visitors.

Obey the Rules of Good Typography

The difference between a Web designer and a graphic designer is that a graphic designer has been schooled in the effective use of typography to capture and hold attention. Newspapers and magazines use column width and spacing for well-researched reasons. You need to mimic this on the Web.

Remember That Light is Right

White or light backgrounds are the best for websites. You need to make your website easy on the eyes. Dark backgrounds with light text are hard on older eyes. Black type on light background is always best.

Graphic Design Should Complement

Never use unrelated graphics to fill space. The use of graphics should complement the environment and provide a Stimulus-Response Cue for a desired action.

Of course you can't influence the senses of taste, smell, and touch (and all of our experience shows that music doesn't work on websites). That leaves the visual experience. We believe in hiring graphic designers who know what works in the print world. Then the trick is to translate that to the Web world.