The Science of Design

14 Dec,2016


By Alpana Parida


Our non-verbal minds, which are our older brain – as opposed to the evolutionarily later emerging neo-frontal cortex is responsible for decision-making. While the frontal lobes can analyse spreadsheets and quantitative data, the non-verbal limbic brain handles the inference of that data to create trust, affinity and preference.


For design to work, it needs to understand the workings of the non-verbal brain. This brain interprets by association. So whatever the conscious brain sees is interpreted by delving into its subconscious and unconscious selves. In the subconscious resides the metaphor defined through a cultural context. For example, a lady wearing red in the East and West mean different things. In the East, red signifies auspiciousness and abundance; in the West, it stands for danger. Thus the woman in red could be interpreted as the wife or the mistress – depending on who is seeing her.


Design identifies the associations that a brain makes and creates solutions that can then shape perception. Because this is not a visible process to the conscious mind, a lot of us see it as fluff. I come across a lot of people who evaluate design using their linear linguistic brain who evaluate design literally. A chemical company needs to show the molecular structure in the logo. Or a dairy needs to have the name Gokul and show a Bal Krishna.


Our conscious brains see things – and if it can directly understand the non-verbal communication, it does not go deeper. On the other hand, if it needs to interpret the Amul girl – the naughty child who loves butter – and subconsciously sees Bal Krishna, the brand goes deeper into the brain.


Thus, literal design builds brands in the conscious mind and metaphoric design builds brands in the deeper sub-conscious mind. It takes a lot more effort, time and resources to make a brand in the superficial mind stick, the deeper it penetrates – the deeper it sticks and becomes harder to dislodge.


Design and designers often appear to be illogical and intuitive, and thus not scientific; but the shaping of perception would not and could not occur if such a science did not exist. How we walk changes depending on the environment we are in. Observe people entering the lobby of an opulent 5-star hotel. They stand taller and walk more erect than they would in a crowded railway station. Design can shape behaviour – but only if it touches the place from where our behavior emanates and thus reaches the deeper subconscious mind where cultural metaphors reside or the deeper unconscious mind where ourbelief system resides.


For the non-verbal mind users, this process directly occurs in the sub-conscious mind and there is no need to engage the neo-frontal cortex to argue and reason. They can evoke a specific feeling – which directly reaches the deeper self which no amount of listing of features on packaging can rival. The minimalist Apple packaging and the feature packed Microsoft bullet points on packaging work differently. One reaches deeper and evokes a feeling of affinity and desire, the other remains functional but not joyful.


Recent successes in our eco-system are metaphoric brands such as Pepperfry and Paperboat that needed to do a lot less than others in their category to establish themselves. The literal brain sees a clear co-relation between input and output. Thus, if you want effective design, you need to ask consumers if they like it or not. Research it to death, create an iterative set of additions that keep detracting from the simplicity of design and eventually not end up working well enough.


A dear friend and a senior professor of marketing at Stern, NYU recommended a novel research idea for packaging design. Rather than ask consumers what they like or don’t like (we are asking them to interpret their deeper limbic brain reactions in words – and then basing our solutions on that) she recommended we put the same product in different packs to be researched. We then ask consumers which product was better, tastier, and moreeffective? This would help us isolate the impact of packaging, as the product is the same.


To create competitive brands locally and globally – we need to penetrate our consumers’ brains and reach their hearts. Design will go a long way in doing that without requiring high decibel and wasteful advertising. As a nation, we do not value design as a business driver. Hopefully, a newer generation of entrepreneurs will change that.


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