What neuroscience can do for design

Stephen Bell

Design and neuroscience may seem like very odd bedfellows and you may wonder why a creative director is talking about neuroscience at all. But breakthroughs in neuroscience over the past four years have revealed much about the way we think, receive information, make decisions and, ultimately, make choices from which anyone in brand communications can learn.

Design’s potency lies in particular in its ability to speak to the subconscious as powerfully as it convinces the conscious or ‘thinking’ parts of our brain. For brands this is crucial because this how we all make choices about what to buy.

Neuroscience has taught us that most decision-making is automatic, intuitive and instinctive and is made in the System 1 ‘rapid response’ part of our brains. After that initial ‘autopilot’ response, we then rationalise our decisions in System 2 – the reflective and logical section of the brain. This is why, as consumers, we desire the sleek minimalism of an Apple product or the elegant lines of a Mercedes first, then convince ourselves it’s because of the interface or engineering.

This way of making decisions impacts everything from our choice of partner to our choice of brands, products and companies. For this reason, designers need to create brands that connect with the intuitive and instinctive System 1 decision-making part of the brain, as well as making sense of System 2.

This knowledge can be applied to the way designers work. What is interesting is that the dominant language of System 1 is visual – around 90 per cent – so intuitive and ‘rapid response’ decision-making is visually-based.

Why therefore are most creative agencies inherently biased towards System 2, with strategy and planning approaches that lead to copy heavy documents and intellectual models? In written briefs to designers it is almost left to chance that they will be able to encode System 1 cues successfully into the finished product. If the output is expected to be highly visual, why not the input?

At Coley Porter Bell we use ‘Visual Planning’ to address this. This technique involves moving beyond the words of a brief to think, instead, in images. A brief, for example, might contain the word ‘security’; this might bring to mind an image of a baby in a mother’s arms or a padlocked safe – two rather different ideas. Visual thinking can thus help to translate briefs with more clarity and direction.

When you start to understand the System 1 and System 2 brain you are able to put the science behind what many agencies and marketers know instinctively: that purely rational advertising and design are not enough – they need to work both rationally and emotionally. Taking a visual approach to strategic discussions will ultimately give brands more scope to better connect with consumers. This increases the chances of a successful real-world strategy and design and creates brands and identities that add value, create loyalty and drive choice – and ultimately grow a brand’s bottom line.

There are rules of thumb to creating brand designs that will help to create work that will appeal to System 1 and System 2:

1. Brands have to work as both a signpost and an invitation

We overhauled Morrisons’ own-brand offering – a huge design task covering thousands of individual touch points.

While the supermarket’s existing Value range was working well as a signpost with its bright yellow packaging presenting a strong identity, it was not so successful in inviting customers in. In some instances, it was doing the opposite, as consumers were embarrassed to have the range in their shopping basket.

Value grocery is a very ‘rational’ category. However, it is not enough to just appeal rationally. Packaging has to invite people in, create emotional engagement and connect with System 1. We therefore replaced the bright yellow packaging with colourful illustrations, hand-drawn on a white background for each range, and combined these with a bespoke typeface and a new name for the range. This gave a vibrant and lively expression to a ‘rational’ category. The branding still works as a signpost and looks like a value range, but we have invited consumers in too.

2. Learn by association

The System 1 side of the brain learns by association, so understanding and using the visual impact of trends can pay huge dividends. Health has become less about denial and absence, and more about holistic fun. In turn, this has created a shift towards more vibrant, colourful portrayals of wellbeing.

Pearlfisher has leveraged this concept to great effect for the Waitrose Love Life range, with consumers recognising the brand as a healthier option. Its core range plays to the vibrant colours of today’s health, while the diet range injects vibrancy and warmth to its identity.

3. Use visual codes to connect to your consumers’ goals

System 1 is geared towards fulfilling needs or goals. Therefore, understanding and leveraging the visual cues and languages that signal fulfillment of these goals is a crucial step towards encouraging consumers to choose a brand – whether it’s the madcap, fun world of Ben and Jerry’s that fulfills the need for pleasure or the wholesome, honest taste cues of Dorset Cereals that address our longing for trustworthy pleasure.

Because visuals are the dominant language of System 1, successful brands not only need to know what goals they respond to in a written sense, but their visual DNA needs to support this too, letting them tell and retell a consistent story in new and surprising ways.

The visual understanding and consistency of a brand is essential in today’s image-saturated world. The steampunk Victoriana of Hendrick’s Gin, for example, is present in everything from its pack to experiences to communications, clearly supporting a goal oriented towards enjoyment and adventure.

Another gin brand, Beefeater, is constantly re-telling the story of its London heritage through branding by Design Bridge, supporting its goal towards reassurance with excitement.

We spend an awful lot of time understanding a brand intellectually, but we need to put in as much effort into understanding its visual DNA.

System 1 thinking may not rub well with the desire to take an intellectual approach to marketing and design, but brand owners need to look towards neuroscience in the planning and strategic stages of their work to ensure a strong creative that is effective and invaluable. They also need to adopt the rules of thumb to ensure that their brands truly ‘seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious’.

Stephen Bell is executive creative director of Coley Porter Bell


Stephen Bell

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