How Perception Alters Reality And Design Influences Content

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? According to Geico, it not only makes a sound, but whines a bit as it does. However the question is really a philosophical one about perception and reality and if you’ll bear with me a bit, there’s a connection to design.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

Can Perception Alter Reality?

Is reality the same for everyone to perceive or do our perceptions of reality before observing it alter the reality we then perceive?

You may have heard of the observer effect. In the early 1900’s physicists were trying to determine if light was a particle or a wave. Without going into details, when experiments were set up to prove that light behaved like a particle, it behaved like a particle. When experiments were set up to prove that light behaved like a wave, it behaved like a wave.

The way in which reality was observed affected reality.

That’s all well and good for physics and science. How about an example from my daily life where my perception and awareness changes the my local reality?

The more I write about a topic or generally become interested in it, the more I notice articles about it and the more I notice it playing out in the world in front of me. As my interest in a topic increases my reality seems to present me with more and more examples of the topic I’m interested in.

The articles and examples would obviously be present regardless of my noticing them, but my awareness and perception leads me to notice them and in effect changes my local reality. My reality is different due to how I perceive it.

It does work in reverse as well. A topic I’m not particularly interested in may be of interest to so many others that instances of it enter into my field of view more and more. With so many occurrence it becomes difficult not to notice them. Here reality outside of my own perception changed due to external forces, which ultimately changed my perception of the world in front of me.

  • If I fall in love with the color orange, it’s likely I’ll start noticing it more and so my world becomes more orange.
  • If others fall in love with the color orange, it likely gets used more and so my world becomes more orange.

Changes in the world around you sometimes come about, because the world around you has indeed changed. Sometimes, though the change is in your perception of the world around you.

You Bring Your Own Context to the Party

We each bring a lifetime of thoughts and experiences to every moment and event. Our thoughts and experiences will alter how we perceive each moment and event. You and I might experience the same event and walk away with entirely different interpretations of what we experienced.

Later when recounting out shared experience we might wonder how the other perceived something so different. Our perceptions going in might have been so far apart that we did have two completely different experiences, while being at the same event at the same moment in time.

Ever see a movie with someone and walk out of the theater with entirely different opinions of it? That’s not what the movie brought to you, but rather what you brought to the movie. We each experience events through a different worldview. We each bring a different context to the party.

Think politics, religion, operating systems or any other charged topic. Think how often you’ve wondered how someone else couldn’t see something so obvious to you and vice versa.

How Designers Can Alter Perception and Reality

At the start of this post I said there was a connection to design. Much of what we do as designers is create perception. We set the context for how content on a website will be perceived.

Visitors to a site start making judgements about the site in a few milliseconds. Long before reading a single word they’ve formed opinions about the site based solely on the design we created to hold those words.

Blue is often used to communicate trust. It doesn’t smack you over the head and scream trust into your ear, though. Blue is the color of the sea and the sky, two things which are always present. We can count on them. We trust them.

When we see blue we make the connection to sea and sky and to some degree the trust we have in sea and sky is transferred to a design through the color blue. In using blue our design helps create a perception that the site holds similar qualities to sea and sky without explicitly saying it.

Every aspect of your design is perceived by visitors and what they perceive alters their reality from that point on. In setting context and creating perception you help shape how all future messages will be interpreted.

If you can create a perception of trust through visual communication, it’s likely visitors will forgive the first contradictory statement they come across. They’ll adjust their interpretation of the contradiction to fit the perception of trust they already hold.

Of course, if they continue to read conflicting statements their perception will change. The idea isn’t that you can take one thing and convince people it’s another. It’s simply that how people perceive something influences how they continue to perceive it in the face of new information.

This carries beyond your choice of color. It’s how brands are built. Creating a strong impression through consistent choices creates a strong perception of a brand, that can be difficult to change in spite of conflicting messages. People will be more forgiving of the reality due to their perception.

Cognition and Science and Design

Back in the spring I watched a video I found via A Way Back. The video was of a presentation given by Alex Faaborg at Google I/O and I highly recommend giving it a watch.

The video is titled Cognitive Science and Design and it talks about visual perception and how it influences interactive and visual design. I had started making notes for a post about it after watching, but didn’t think I could do justice to it. Better to simply point you to the video.

However, let me briefly mention an example from the video to entice you to watch it, especially as it applies to this discussion of perception.

The Perception of Time

Common wisdom holds that people think something is loading faster when there’s a progress bar (or so we’ve been told). Regardless of the actual time involved, the feedback that something is happening leads to the perception that it’s happening quicker.

What’s also interesting is the speed at the end of the progress bar influences perception more than the speed at any other point. In other words if the speed of progress accelerates at the end it feels like the whole thing moved faster.

When a web page renders there are two possible ways to display it to the screen.

  1. Load each part one at a time as they’re ready
  2. Show nothing until all parts are ready and show the full page at once.

The latter appears to load quicker.

We mentally chunk the whitespace that comes before as one thing and don’t really know how long it lasts. We perceive that there’s nothing and then the whole page loads at once, and it feels faster than seeing one part load, then another, and another, until the whole page is rendered.

It doesn’t really matter which is actually faster. It’s our perception of which is faster that determines the performance to the viewer. Once again perception is altering our reality.

Do watch the video. It’s just shy of 40 minutes and explains this example and many others far better than I did and could.


I’ve been a bit philosophical in this post, but I hope you stuck with me till the end. Regardless of how you would answer the philosophical questions, the reality is the perceptions people carry affect how they’ll perceive what comes next.

The content behind a website is the most important part of that website. It’s ultimately what brings people to the site and what gets them to come back. However the package we design around that content plays a vital role in how that content is perceived and interpreted. We can in a sense alter the content through the design that packages it.

Your design alters the context in which content is absorbed. It creates a perception in the mind of a visitor that will alter the reality of the content.

Is reality the same for everyone to perceive or do our perceptions of reality before observing it alter the reality we then perceive? Think about the ways in which you might alter perception when designing a website.

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  1. Haha yes a very deep and philosophical post Steven, but much appreciated. You are right, perception is the key, and I guess design is about creating a perception about whatever product or service you are working on, giving the impression of quality, of freedom, of whatever the product can give you other than what is was designed to do, like status, personal beauty, popularity. I like your colour analysis, and how you point out how the viewer can be influenced to believe certain things even before they have read one word.. .
    Thank you.

    • Thanks Jeff. I think you can design packaging or a website to give an impression about the product or site other than what it was intended to do. I’d argue the best perception is the truth and we can design to enhance products and sites.

      I think the key to remember is whatever you design there’s going to be some perception the viewer gets. You might as well work to convey the impression you want, instead of it being random.

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