How Instinctual Behaviour Affects Design

– By Nicholas Chambers

When creating a new product a designer will come up with numerous iterations to better refine the final outcome. Often we make choices which we can only justify as; ‘It looks better’ or ‘That contoured edge appeals to me more’. Here I present some explanations for these choices which run deep into the human subconscious.

The Uncanny Valley

The phenomenon known as the “Uncanny Valley” describes the response humans have to objects with varying degrees of anthropomorphism. Masahiro Mori, Japanese roboticist, first wrote about the phenomenon in his paper “Bukimi No Tani” (Uncanny Valley, 1970) presenting a graph describing how a human’s familiarity with an object strongly correlates with its level of human likeness. The uncanny valley begins when the object becomes very humanlike but can still be distinguished as an imitation, in layman’s terms ‘creepy’. A good example is one of Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s robots standing beside himself in the image below. It is believed that when we achieve the uncanny valley we begin associating the objects with death and illness at which point our instincts kick in repeling us from said objects.


A decision we come across in everyday design is the smooth contours we see on products from cars to appliances. It’s obvious that they have some aerodynamic qualities but how many kettles are flying through skies and racing down streets? What underlying instinct is driving this trend?

The research report ‘Humans Prefer Curved Visual Objects’ (2006) 140 pairs of real objects and 140 pairs of meaningless patterns were shown to a group of 14 subjects. Each pair contained objects of similar appearance and semantic meaning but with differencing contours. The experiment found that there was a consistent preference for both the curved objects and patterns over their sharp-angled counterparts.

Just as the Uncanny Valley was a result of one of our primal instincts so is our contour preference, we a programmed to be repelled by sharp dangerous object.

Humans prefer Curved Visual Objects

Image from ‘Humans prefer Curved Visual Objects’


Mori, M. (1970), The Uncanny Valley, Energy (pp. 33-35), translated by MacDorman, K. Takahashi, M.,, (Accessed 7/6/13)

Lidwell, W. Holden,  K. Butler, J. (2010), Universal Principles of Design, edn 2, Rockport Publishers

Bar, M. Neta, M. (2006), Humans Prefer Curved Visual Objects, Psychological Science,, (Accessed: 6/6/13)

Dr Ishiguro and his double image: