The Science of Logo Design
Illustration by John Hersey
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A is for attention


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The Science of Logo Design

with William Lidwell

Video: A is for attention

The first goal of the logo is to grab attention. That is why attention is the first cognitive event in the ARMM model. The A is for attention. In order to design a logo that grabs attention, we must first understand what makes our brains pay attention to certain things and not to others and to do this, we must understand a bit about how our brains evolved.

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Watch the Online Video Course The Science of Logo Design
45m 3s Beginner Apr 30, 2014

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Logo design requires artistry, but did you know your logos can also benefit from science? William Lidwell introduces the whys behind well-known guidelines and even debunks a few outdated design myths along the way. He reviews the 4 principles that make a logo ARMM'd for use: attention, response, meaning, and memory. Use these tips to bring scientific rigor to your logos and start designing on evidence, not industry hearsay.

This course was created and produced by William Lidwell. We're honored to host this training in our library.

Subject:
Design
Author:
William Lidwell

A is for attention

The first goal of the logo is to grab attention. That is why attention is the first cognitive event in the ARMM model. The A is for attention. In order to design a logo that grabs attention, we must first understand what makes our brains pay attention to certain things and not to others and to do this, we must understand a bit about how our brains evolved. For millions of years, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers on the savannas of East Africa.

Survival favored those with brains that were good at identifying opportunities to promote good health and reproduction, like finding calorie-rich foods and fertile mates and also good at identifying threats that increased risk of illness and harm. Like avoiding dangerous plants and animals. Then much like a single elimination tournament played out over millions of years, each generation had winners and losers based on these abilities. The winners were those that survived long enough to pass their genes onto the next generation and the losers were eliminated.

In this way, successive generations inherited increasingly refined survival brain software, to detect things that are good for us and things that threaten us. So let's look at how our brains evolved to respond to three kinds of stimuli, critical to our ancestors survival and then explore ways to effectively hack these responses to grab attention. The three kinds of stimuli are: one, novel stimuli; two, supernormal stimuli; and three, partially obscured stimuli.

The first attention grabbing hack regards how we respond to novel stimuli. Novel stimuli, meaning anything that deviates from the norm, grabs our attention. This makes sense when you think about it. When our ancestors were roaming the savannas, information about untapped resources or potential threats were more likely to come from things that were new, than things that were familiar. We therefore evolved brain software that preferentially attends to novelty, to detecting differences from the status quo.

So in order to grab attention, the first thing our logo can do, is appear new and unfamiliar to the intended audience. If it looks like a conventional logo, or it's similar to other words and symbols where it's being displayed, it won't get noticed. There are two basic ways to achieve this. If you are creating or redesigning a logo, you can make the logo significantly different from any current logo and other logos in it's category, as American Airlines did with their logo redesign, or as the Serpentine Gallery did with their design.

If you are working with an existing logo, you can add novelty by occasionally changing it up in some interesting way, as Google regularly does with its Google doodles. The second attention grabbing hack regards how we respond to super normal stimuli. You take a thing that triggers an instinctive response and then you exaggerate it to amplify that response. For example, we evolved to pay special attention to baby faces. So it is no coincidence that most dolls and stuffed animals have the exaggerated large eyes and tiny noses of babies.

We evolved to pay special attention to mating and fertility cues. So it is no coincidence that men are drawn to women with exaggerated hourglass figures, and women to men with exaggerated V-shaped torso. We evolved to associate spiders and snakes, and bright contrasting colors with threats. So there's no coincidence that things with these patterns and color combinations attract our attention. So, what are some supernormal stimuli that we can use in logo design to grab attention? Let's look at a few examples.

Faces, particularly eyes as with the CBS logo, the deconstructed face of LG's logo, and the abstracted smile on Amazon's logo. Baby face features, as with Borden's Elsie, Google's Android, and Twitter's bird. Provocative forms, as with the hourglass body, of the Starbuck's mermaid; the visual innuendo, expressed by the BlackJet logo; and the Rolling Stone's classic tongue logo. Snakes and spiders.

Like the spider-like W in the Whitney Museum logo and the snake-like logo of the London Symphony Orchestra which, if you look at it a while, will switch to an orchestra conductor. And lastly, bright contrasting colors, as with the FedEx, Google, and Shell logos. The third attention-grabbing hack regards how we respond to partially obscured stimuli. You may have heard of Gestalt Principles of Perception.

Like the Principles of Continuation and Closure, that is what's going on here. From an evolutionary perspective, it was advantageous to be able to see partially obscured patterns, just bits and pieces of things like a snake obscured by high grass or a tiger hiding in the bush and then to be able to connect the dots up in our brains so we could respond quickly. In this way, our brains have evolved to pay special attention to incomplete patterns, reflexively completing them by filling in the missing data.

Using this reflex, we can grab attention by simply obscuring parts of a logo. There are two common strategies for doing this. The first is to simply mask or break up a logo, which then requires your brain to complete the picture. A good example of this technique is the IBM logo by Paul Rand or the panda bear in the World Wildlife Fund logo. The second is to use negative space to create new elements that only exist when your brain completes the pattern.

You see this with the S in the USA Network logo, in the peacock in the NBC logo. So, let's summarize. The first goal of a logo is to grab attention. That is why attention is the first cognitive event in the ARMM model. The A is for attention. How do we make a logo grab attention? We hack the attention allocation software in our brains. Specifically the brain software that reflexively responds to novel stimuli, super normal stimuli, and partially obscured stimuli.

As we saw in the examples, a logo may exploit just one of these hacks, or in some cases, it can be designed to exploit all of them, for maximum attention grabbing effect.

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