Looks Matter More Than You Think: How We Respond to Beauty in Design

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A couple of months ago, I stumbled onto a surprisingly impressive, tongue-in-cheek blog called Hipster Branding. Although the concept is old hat (aren’t people tired of the word ‘hipster’ yet?), the point behind the blog is articulated skillfully. The designer, Dave Spengeler, took famous, bloated corporations such as McDonald’s, Nike, and Fedex, and redesigned their logos in a way that would appeal to a supposedly frame-wearing, cocktail-drinking, Kafka-reading subculture. The results are astounding: every single logo feels smarter, classier, boutique, and appealing to that type of person – all because of a few new typefaces and shapes.

Why is it that appearance makes such an immediate impact? Why is it that it can make or break so many of our decisions, create or destroy brand loyalties, and tap into our strongest instincts? A few theories and some wise words by Don Norman begin to explain the reasons behind it all – and even prove just how far appearance can go.

According to scholars, visual judgment is the first thing to occur when humans perceive something. Although the research isn’t entirely there yet to explain all the nuts and bolts of humans’ reactions to visuals, a good start is offered by “The Halo Effect” and “The Confirmation Bias”.

Simply put, The Halo Effect suggests that your first impression of something will determine how you continue to judge it. Let’s take something simple, like Maple Syrup.  A few months ago, Old Faithful Shop started carrying Noble Tonic Maple Syrup. The company packages their oozing, sugary goodness in a bottle capped with a wooden cork and a white seal. You see the tantalizing, tiny syrup bubbles in the neck of the bottle; you see the rich, seductive amber of the syrup glowing just so against the bottle; you see the embossed lettering, the perfectly imperfect white seal, and the soft curve of the glass. Those are just some aspects of the packaging that make Noble Tonic an irresistibly seductive temptation – and they’re all there for you to notice literally as soon as you lay eyes on it. So, when you are finally lucky enough to taste this magic elixir, you taste not only the syrup, but all the positive impressions the bottle made on you. That’s the “Confirmation bias” kicking in – because of your first impression, you are looking for bits of information that support your positive initial reactions, and ignoring the bits that contradict it.

Now, think about the same Maple Syrup – but this time, it’s in a no name bottle from a dusty corner of your local No Frills.  Even if it doesn’t taste half bad, you’ll still remember how the plastic felt against your hands, how the yellow in the label distinctly reminded you of vomit, and how the fluorescent lighting from the store illuminated the greasy finger prints on the bottle. Not the same experience as you’d get from Noble Tonic, is it?

Maple Syrup aside, the Halo Effect and the Confirmation Bias both fit into a particularly interesting theory of Donald Norman’s about the effects of visuals on experience. In his article for Interactions Magazine, “Emotion and design: Attractive things work better”, the cognitive science, design, and usability engineering Academic outlines a fascinating explanation of Affect and Design.

Affect is an information processing system. Unlike cognition, however, affect is immediately judgmental – it determines if something is good or bad the moment you come in contact with it. When you look at your grandmother’s sinisterly spotty, questionably brown goop of ‘chili’ and are immediately repulsed, that’s affect. When you cringe at the sound of nails on a chalkboard, that’s affect. Affect can be either negative or positive and both influence the mind. Negative affect focuses the mind, leading to better concentration, yet a tunnel vision way of thinking; positive affect leads to creative, outside-the-box thinking, yet makes you victim to distractions.

So you like how something looks, or you don’t like how something looks. Big deal. It’s just what you see – it’s not like appearance influences how well something functions, right? Wrong.

Affective signals work by the release of neurochemicals. Even if you have a negative affective experience from something purely visual, like seeing an ugly bunch of flowers, those matching mental qualities and ways of thinking (increased concentration but tunnel vision problem solving) will emerge because of the released neurochemicals. And neurochemicals don’t just disappear quickly – they stay in your system for a significant amount of time. Therefore, no matter how useable or intuitive a product might actually be, your first impression of it determines how well you’re able to figure out and interact with the design. Negative affect limits your ability to interact with the design successfully, while positive affect helps you look past the shortcomings of a design. For better or for worse, the appearance of something directly determines how well you are able to use it.

So there you have it. Although we are still unsure why exactly visuals matter so much to consumers, the Halo Effect, the Confirmation Bias, Maple Syrup, and Norman’s take on Affect give us at least a little bit more insight into the matter. So next time you throw out that hideous pair of “really comfortable, warm, and useful” socks your mother gets you for Christmas, don’t feel bad. According to research, we’re all just programmed to put aesthetics first.