Blink an Eye

by Blake W. Howard

Scientists have made some interesting discoveries over the years on how we visually process information, our “sequence of cognition”, as they call it. It turns out we first see the overall shape of an object which allows us to quickly identify it. Then we recognize its color, and finally its content, all within a micro-second. This is great insight for those of us thinking about visual communications and branding.

From a mile away we can identify a Starbucks because of that green circle. In a micro second we recognize the Nike swoosh because of it’s unique shape. Shapes conjure up different messages. Take a dinning room table for instance, a traditional rectangle table requires someone to be at the head of the table placing them at the top of the food chain in the room. This position of authority is reserved for the individual hosting the dinner, or for a guest of significant importance, whereas a circle table demands equality. The Knights of the Round Table were equals and sat in a circle.

So, how do we take this scientific theory and translate it into an applicable process for design? Here are three ways you can exercise this into the world of branding:

Think Shapes vs. Shapes
Review a brand’s competitive landscape, what basic shapes are occupied? Which ones are not? For example, CBS & ABC both use circles, but NBC uses the peacock shape. Harley uses the shield shape to separate from the Honda wing, Suzuki S, and Kawasaki K. Target uses the bullseye shape to differentiate from the Walmart star. It’s a simple and effective way to build a case for your visual strategy.

Color the Competition
Why are Kubota tractors orange? Probably because John Deere’s are green. Why is Home Depot orange? Probably because Lowe’s is blue. Color, at a glance, is a competitive weapon in the marketplace. Sometimes the best colors aren’t the ones we like the best, but are the ones most distinct at the blink of an eye.

Do a Squint Test
In Thailand there’s a popular coffee stand called “Starwars Coffee” with a familiar green circle as the logo. This wanna-be Starbucks on the dark side pulls a Jedi mind trick and at a glance can fool unsuspecting tourists because of its similarity in shape, color, and content. The book end “S”s blur the rest of the word together forming an almost identical typeset. The treatment of the first and last letters in a brand name are crucial in communication with our minds filling in the gaps. Doing a quick squint test can help examine intuitive distinction and best avoid being sucked into the Dark Side.

According to The Sequence of Cognition Theory, we see the shape of a mark first, it’s color second, and finally it’s content. All in the blink of an eye.

This popular coffee stand in Thialand borrows heavily off of the branding of Starbucks to attract patrons.


Quick Tips
Do an investigation of the shapes and colors used by a clients competition. Take note of basic shapes and color to help differentiate your work.


Dig Deeper!
For an in-depth exploration of the sequence of visual cognition refer to Robert L Solso’s Cognition and the Visual Arts, published by the M.I.T. Press—Ed

For More Resources on Color

Color Inspirations: See top color palettes from the popular website, COLOURlovers.comPantone Essentials with Effects Package: Get Color Guides.
ColorLovers ColorSchemer Studio, A Professional Color-Matching Application

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