Principles of Design #25 – Framing

Context frames decisions

Framing is the use of any contextual information, including words and images, to manipulate how someone thinks about something.  For example, we can present information in a positive way (‘the glass is half full’) or in a negative way (‘the glass is half empty’), influencing the way the information is processed and used to make decisions and form judgments.  The news media, politicians and all propagandists (including advertisers) commonly use framing with great effect often very consciously.

We all use mental shortcuts to help ease decision making (to put it bluntly, we are cognitive misers who like to think as little as possible), using context as a key to accessing relevant shortcuts.  I would usually advertise a product as “95% fat free” rather than “5% fat rich” although they mean exactly the same thing, and similarly politicians often frame legislation and political positions to influence voters.  Tobacco legislation has been defeated in more than one country through faming choices as a matter of taxation rather than a matter of public health.  A notorious example of this is the abortion debate in the US, where stances are framed as “pro life vs anti life” on one side, and “pro choice vs anti choice” on the other.

Positive frames tend to lead to positive feelings often resulting in more proactive and risk taking behaviours, whereas negative frames tend to lead to negative feelings often resulting in more reactive and risk avoiding behaviours.  Such effects can be amplified by stress and time pressures as exploited by high pressure sales techniques: put the product in a positive light, the competitor in a negative frame, and push for a quick decision.  If too many frames are presented which conflict, then such effects can be neutralised and people revert to their normal beliefs and behaviours.

Marketers and designers can use framing to elicit positive or negative feelings about any experience, and to influence behaviours and decision making.  Positive frames of reference can help push people to action (eg, make a purchase) while negative frames of reference can influence people to inaction (eg, prevent use of illegal drugs).  Always keep your framing consistent, to maintain a strong framing effect.  Conversely, multiple conflicting frames can be used to neutralise other framing effects (eg, competitive products or points of view).


Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Scott Plous (1993)

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