UX lessons from Freud’s unconscious mind — with a dash of bacon

According to Freud the Unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but influence judgments, feelings, and behavior. It is the primary storehouse of human behavior, feelings, motives. Our decisions are powerfully influenced by our past experiences and stored in the unconscious.

The Unconscious speaks in a language of dreams, memories, pictures, images, words which flow together with no sense of logical order. The closest approximation we have to this in the sphere of design is in certain works of Art, Not art as a whole but a specific type of poetic art. Andrei Tarkovsky in his seminal work Sculpting in time wrote it’s a specific way of looking at the world. Coherent logic has Its limitations in UX, the emphasis is placed primarily on engaging our conscious mind but using Sigmund Freud's the unconscious as a model we discover that the conscious mind is only 10% of the entire mind if we want to engage the greater parts of the mind we have to communicate in its language.

In a fragment of a second you can understand: Things you know, things you don’t know, things you don’t know that you don’t know, conscious, unconscious, things which in a fragrant of a second you can react to. It takes longer to capture but the essence is the same, when you experience a design and it gets to you. It sticks in your memory and your feelings.
Peter Zumthor

As you stare at a painting you find yourself moved, you have no idea why, you might not understand what it means but it has a profound impact on you. If you were to try and break it down words would fail you. Poetic art is a medium for spiritual truth. Truth is light and light makes manifest. When a painter expresses the truth of a scene he lifts the veil of the flesh to reveal what lies beneath, be it greed, lust, joy etc. It deals with the core of who we are. Truth is the domain of knowledge. Art speaks to the complexities of the world. Truth is unfolded single yet deep, knowledge understood brings truth to the individual so when the artist observes puts paint to canvas with the light they possess they make manifest the light through the prism of the mind’s eye. It helps to guide and teach us in expressing truths beyond mere dialogue surpassing the mind and speaking directly to our unconscious. Poetic Art is singular for it is the result of a single mind, one unfolded by the complexities of logic but it is deep as the ocean, It is pure for it unveils.

For example in The Dark Knight (2008) the director Christopher Nolan used the Francis bacon painting Triptych among others as a spiritual inspiration in which to create an atmosphere and moving quality to his work.

Triptych–August 1972 Francis Bacon


The painting was a huge influence on the atmosphere of the Dark Knight. Painted in a very bleak period of the artist’s life when he had lost someone close to him and had a very bleak, haunting quality to it. It was that same theme that began to permeate through the Dark Knight.

In the same way in the construction of any interface that same breath that same inspiration is needed in order to create an interface that moves the user. User testing has its place but ultimately we can test design to death till it cripples its soul. One of the most striking aspects of the work of Sir Francis Bacon was his use of space, everything was carefully tailored to focus the viewers gaze on the focal point which is a usually a distorted figure.

In three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion. The use of negative space is particularly haunting. The paint strokes are strong and almost violent, there's a passion and vigor in every brushstroke. The figures are often in stark almost empty rooms, we are left wondering about what lies outside of the room what building is this? How did these figures end up in such a place? There's always a tension between figure and foreground whilst the figures almost seem to float above them. The use of colors is striking the orange almost luminous in color. Bacon’s rendered spaces affect a dislocation of his figures, leaving them floating. We are left wondering whether these are components of the figure’s world or rather components of the realm of perception that swims between figure and artist or viewer. The spaces of the paintings are supernatural, full of the unknowable. Its a different way of looking at space.

In the same way, when I began to experiment with the use of art in interface design there was a yearning to create work with depth, meaning, and purpose In the beginning, this was achieved through a multitrait process of layering but this resulted in less coherent and needlessly complex interfaces creating a chasm between the product and the user. During the making of a website for a cryptocurrency bank, I turned to the work of Matisses the fall of Icarus as inspiration and even though I was not yet seasoned and lacked the eloquence to fully manifest the concepts and ideas that I had it was a playful attempt at reaching something greater. Like the first etching’s a child makes when they first draw.

Matisse, Henri (1869–1954)

Icarus or The Flight of Icarus is perhaps Henri Matisse best-known work from the book of cut-outs titled Jazz. According to Gallery Intel

“It’s a deeply tragic moment of inevitable death, of destruction, of collapse of hopes and ambitions, yet there’s an almost meditational composition. The bursts of the yellow sunlight against the rich blue of the sky are almost hypnotic with a bright red spot in place of a heart is mysterious and calm, free of anxiety or fear.”

In this same way, I found this to be an apt metaphor for what was the fall of the banking system as we knew it (which is what the stakeholders had presented to me). It was a succes and when presented to the stakeholders greatly moved them.

This approach also applies to the Architecture as well when we look at the Jewish museum in Germany designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind he mentions four different sources of inspiration for his design. Prominent Jewish and non-Jewish Berliners such as Paul Celan, Max Liebermann, Heinrich von Kleist, Rahel Varnhagen, and Friedrich Hegel stand for the connections between Jewish tradition and German culture prior to the Shoah. Libeskind plotted their addresses on a map, and a network of lines emerged from which he developed the structure of the building and the windows. Other ideas came from composer Arnold Schönberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron, from the German Federal Archive’s The Memorial Book for the Victims of the Nazi Persecution of Jews in Germany (1933–1945), and from the essay “One-Way Street,” by Walter Benjamin.


Despite numerous criticism of his later work, there is no denying the power of his opus the Jewish museum. According to their official website

Daniel Libeskind’s design, which was created a year before the Berlin Wall came down, was based on three insights: it is impossible to understand the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous contributions made by its Jewish citizens; the meaning of the Holocaust must be integrated into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin; and, finally, for its future, the City of Berlin and the country of Germany must acknowledge the erasure of Jewish life in its history.


Understanding the laws and principles that operate in the unconscious is the first step. We have to speak the language of the unconscious in order to speak directly to it, addressing it with eloquence and erudition. Therefore because the unconscious mind does not follow coherent language, poetic art can lead and guide us in ways to better affect our users unconscious.