Neuroaesthetics: How neuroscience informs some of the world's biggest design successes
What do a neuroscientist and a designer have in common? Not a lot at first glance. However dig deeper and we have much to learn from each other.
Earlier this week I took to the stage at Dubai Lynx with Dr Tim Holmes, a neuroscientist specialising in neuroaesthetics at Royal Holloway who also runs a neuroscience-based research agency, Acuity Intelligence. Together, we explored the world of neuroaesthetics, focusing on the neuroscience behind some of the world’s biggest design successes.
Having always believed design is a powerful influencer on brand choice we wanted to find the justifications for our claims. We set out to understand consumer decision-making and came to neuroscience and the theory of system 1 and system 2 thinking, leading to our belief that brands need to seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious.
Dr Holmes was encouraging about our initial findings and agreed to help us test them by looking at successful design classics from a multiplicity of sources and disciplines – including packaging design, advertising, corporate identity, product design and architecture. We asked Tim to explain the success of each from a neuroscientific point of view in order to develop some rules of thumb.
His favourite piece was from Lego. It has salience – neuroscience speak for standout – critical to system 1 awareness. But what he liked best about this piece was its use of proximity association – the shadow doesn’t match the Lego piece, but the spatial relationship means we associate them, engaging system 2 to resolve the dissonance and forcing us to use our imagination to make sense of the association, mimicking what the brand stands for.
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This leads to rule 1 - System 1 and 2 are more powerful together. It’s not enough to get the attention of system 1 – although that’s critical - for brands to be most effective they need to also engage system 2. That’s how they become embedded in memory, and how relationships are formed.
My favourite was the Volkswagen Beetle. At the time of design its very unexpectedness gave it real salience which continues today. It looks less like a car and more like a natural form, with smooth curves that guide the eye end to end. It’s ‘biological’ appearance is underlined by the big round headlamp ‘eyes’, giving it a pleasant ‘face,’ something VW played to with its licensing of the Herbie films and with it’s ‘eyelash’ accessory, all driving system 1 attraction. Our brains have evolved to see faces in patterns. As babies our vision is tuned to facilitate attachment to our mother’s face, and then faces become an important signal of emotional state, attracting our attention involuntarily.
This leads to our second rule – The Power of Humanity. We are attracted to our own species and anything resembling it draws us in. We attribute human characteristics to things that aren’t human but have human like qualities, it’s called Attribution Theory - and that engages system 1.
From a classic to something recent, we also reviewed the new American Airlines identity.
Neuroscience has taught us that the way we perceive the world is down to our prior knowledge of it – that’s why we see faces in cars.
So tapping in to prior knowledge helps us to communicate complex concepts quickly using system 1. American Airlines has long been the world’s largest airline. Its identity needs to communicate nationalism, strength and the modernity and reliability of its fleet. This identity uses colour priming from the US flag. Gestalt laws of perception help us see a tail fin, and of course the eagle, which has always been part of its brand DNA, which in turn creates associations of soaring through the skies, strength, and freedom, and is an icon of 'Americanness'.
This leads us to rule 3 – System 1 is activated by association – what fires together, wires together. We imbue brands with qualities by building in associations from the wider world. It’s worth remembering that to evoke that system 1 response those associations will have originally been processed in system 2 which does all the learning, system 1 is automatic. So what fires together are the learned associations? It’s why engaging system 2 unlocks long term benefits – we learn, encode and automate.
These are just three out of at least 10 rules of thumb. The key learnings from our presentation at Dubai Lynx is that this knowledge around neuroaesthetics needs to be applied in the creation of brands, not just in their validation. Often clients understand the theory of consumer decision-making, but there is now a set of simple rules of thumb which if followed, will enable marketers and designers to create brands that seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious for real world success.
Vicky Bullen is CEO of Coley Porter Bell