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Design Meets Psychology: Putting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Work

In the past, we discussed at length Why Designers Can’t Ignore Marketing. For the most part, commenters agreed with idea that designers should familiarize themselves with basic marketing principles.

Today, we’re going to put this idea into practice and discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a model born in humanistic psychology and adopted by many marketing professionals as a way to understand consumer behavior. We’ll go over what the model is, how popular companies like Coco-Cola put it into practice and why any of this is relevant to you as a designer.

Marketers Love Maslow


If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you probably heard a thing or two about Maslow. If you majored in marketing, your professors likely never shut up about the guy.

Abraham Maslow was a professor who founded a major branch of psychology known as humanistic psychology, which examines very personal concepts like basic needs and self-actualization. This type of psychology is of course perfect for marketing because it ties in very close with consumer behavior, a tough nut that every marketing department in the world attempts to crack.

The basic premise is simple, if you can understand the customer on a deeper level, you can make a more effective appeal for him/her to buy your product. In order to accomplish this greater understanding, you need to know both the customer’s needs and wants. What is it that they are looking for? What underlying motives drive their purchases?

For instance, let’s say two women drive the same make and model car for different reasons. The first woman enjoys the luxury of the vehicle, the car is a status symbol that makes her feel accepted and even revered in her community of friends and neighbors. The second woman drives the car because it has the highest consumer crash test rating and she is deeply concerned about the safety of her children, who frequently ride with her.

These underlying motives are the gold mine that marketers want to find out about, analyze and hopefully understand. The key question for them then becomes, given a finite marketing budget, which of these two women should they be targeting and how should they go about it?

The Limitations and Value of a Model

When really smart people like scientists, mathematicians and psychologists attempt to grasp or communicate something that’s quite complex, they build models that simplify the concept. It’s extremely important to note that the very nature of this process detracts some truth from the concept. When you simplify something, you take away from it.

This is true of the model we’ll be using today. Human behavior is so immensely complex that it can’t be fully explained with a nice little graphic. However, that does not mean that such a tool can’t deepen our understanding of this vast topic, much the same way as a simplified map of the world gives you a decent glimpse of our planet while sacrificing all of the intricacies of the landscape.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Maslow wrote a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he proposed his now famous hierarchy. Over the years, both him and others refined the model into the version we now know:


As you can see, Maslow arranged different types of needs into a pyramid with five tiers: Physiological, Safety, Love/belonging, Esteem and Self-actualization. Different examples of these types of needs can be seen inside each layer.

The basic idea here that you really need to grasp to understand Maslow’s logic is that, the lower the tier, the more basic the need. Another way to say it is that the lower level needs must be met (to a certain degree) before a person will move up the hierarchy. For example, it’s not uncommon to see someone sacrifice personal safety in their search for food, or for people in our culture to satisfy a primitive sexual desire in a casual interaction before looking for a deep relationship.

Implications to Marketers

This model is definitely starting to show its age and has frequently been critiqued by modern psychologists, especially those with a more global perspective into differing cultures. However, the model can still be quite useful in individualistic societies like the United States.

Marketers can use the model in many ways. A small sample of these is to predict buying trends and/or target specific customers more accurately.

Let’s consider prediction first. A good part of the planet has recently been hit with economic decline. Many people who were once quite well off financially are struggling just to get by. As we see a widespread hit in financial well being, we can assume or predict that many people will be dropped to the lower tiers of the triangle with their purchasing habits. Not able to grant themselves the luxury of purchases that pamper their needs for self-actualization, customers will instead be mostly looking towards things like sustenance, safety, and the support of friends and family.

If you’re selling a product in this type of environment, you can use this psychology to better target your product to the largest potential consumer base. For instance, if we’re selling Coca-Cola in this climate, we might want to avoid campaigns that make the product look like a luxury good (self-actualization ads are popular with Coke) and perhaps instead create a commercial that portrays close family bonds and the warmth of friendship, all held together by Coke of course. If you play close attention, you can see this very tactic is often used by the king of soft drinks.


Click on the image above to see this idea in action. One of Coke’s currently running commercials depicts a normally rich and miserly character from the Simpson’s down on his luck and without his fortune. However, he finds happiness in the sweet taste of Coke and the company of friends. That’s classic Maslow!

What Does This Have to Do With Design?

The simple answer here is that this has everything to do with design. My assumption is that design is your line of work, or something you’re currently pursuing in some sort of professional context. The underlying purpose of most commercial design is to help your clients make money by making them look good.

If you’re not in the kind of role where you get to partner with a marketing team, this becomes your job as the designer. When you design something for a client, do you simply slap a pretty coat of paint on it or attempt to understand the focus, goals and target audience of the piece?

Hopefully, it’s the latter (though most of us often fail to consider anything outside aesthetics). If this is the case, then Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applies to your work just as much as if you were a marketing professor. If you really want to be a better designer, you shouldn’t only spend your days looking for roundups of free Photoshop brushes, you should take the time to learn basic marketing principles like Maslow’s hierarchy.

Using this simple tool you can better target your designs and web copy to a specific customer base. Who do you want to sign up for that web service, at what stage of life are they currently in and how does that fit into the hierarchy?


Say you were designing a new homepage for Facebook or LinkedIn. For Facebook you might utilize the Love/Belonging tier in your design while for LinkedIn you would lean more towards Esteem and Self-Actualization. Converting these concepts into a graphical representation gives visitors something to identify with. By clearly targeting to one of Maslow’s points, you aim directly at a basic need and are, in theory, more likely to convince potential customers.


To briefly sum up, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one of many models that you can use as a designer to help you understand consumer behavior so you can better target your designs in an effective manner.

Remember that design is more than nice colors and cool fonts. It’s about making a very specific impression on a given group of people and steering them in the direction you want them to go. While art could often be said to tie closely with the artist’s own psychology, design is about getting into the heads of the viewers.

Leave a comment below and let us know what you think of the content above. Is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a bunch of psych-babble or a genuinely useful tool for both designers and marketers? Also let us know if you’d like to see more articles on marketing techniques!