The Blog


Processing language is the last interpretation the brain makes, because it requires the most effort cognitively. Shape and color attract the attention of the consumer, but text specifically communicates what the design is about, does, and offers. Learning how consumers view and interpret the items they see will dramatically improve their understanding of your design. After all, isn’t clear, effective communication the point? Some of the most recognizable brands can communicate everything about themselves with a shape. Does SWOOSH mean anything to you?

Alot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. — Steve Jobs

This statement from Steve Jobs illustrates the communication strategy that many companies espoused in the 20th century, ‘tell the consumer how to act and they will follow’. 12 years later in 2010, Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman at Google, stated that, ‘Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003’. Today, users/viewers have too many choices to be ‘told‘ what they want, instead, they identify a need or want internally.

Through an array of sophisticated internal systems, the user, who is biased towards relevant stimuli, can quickly filter and select the most relevant and beneficial solution to their expressed desires.2-8 Presenting information in a very organized, relevant manner is the job of designers. Understanding how humans collect and interpret information through The Sequence of Cognition will dramatically improve the impact of a design.


The science of perception studies how individuals identify and memorize visual input, humans gather and process information in a very orderly fashion, moving from most simple to complex.2,7 The brain seeks understanding by viewing shape, color, then content, this process is called The Sequence of Cognition. Shapes provide the brain with the quickest, most simple source of information, and allow for accelerated decision making.7,9 Gathering information from shapes does not require literacy or complexity, and is the first step in building design awareness and capturing attention.7,9

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Brandmarks like Nike, Apple, and Target are great examples of how simple shapes can communicate an entire Design and lifestyle without the use of a single word.

Shapes can be used in many ways to influence behavior. When an individual determines that they need ketchup, their brain will likely begin scanning for the shape of a Heinz 57 ketchup bottle. The ‘shapes’ of a design are crucial in attracting attention if the user has had previous exposure, the next aspect in the Sequence of Cognition is Color.3,5


There are volumes dedicated to the study of color alone, a more exhaustive discussion on Color Theory can be found elsewhere. Color can generate physiological responses (e.g. increased blood pressure, increased/decreased adrenal activity, dilated pupils, increased heart rate, etc), evoke emotions (trust, anger, excitement, etc), and has a 60% influence on purchasing decisions.2,3,9 Color improves brand recognition and identity. All 12oz aluminum cans are similarly shaped, however Coca-Cola Red stands out to a potential customer.

Colors change meaning from culture to culture, the social context the design is being displayed in must be examined. For Example, in some cultures yellow is used to convey happiness and hope, in others, caution and danger.9,10 Color has a strong influence on eye movement and what information the consumer perceives. Design should emphasize the use of color to direct the eye to the most important areas of content and increase recognition.3,9

Surprisingly, text is the last aspect users digest. Processing language is the final interpretation the brain makes, because it requires the most cognitive effort.9 Shape and color attract the attention of the consumer, but text specifically communicates what the design is about, does, and offers. Consumers spend a longer amount of time (54% more) reading and learning about brands they eventually choose.11-15

Each step in The Sequence of Cognition relies on the strength of the other two aspects, if there is one weak link, your design risks becoming irrelevant. Make sure that you consider every aspect (shape, color, content) in order to engage the user and increase understanding of the message you’re aiming to deliver. The work of Milosavljevic and colleagues and Alina Wheeler in her book Designing Brand Identity have been particularly influential in improving our understanding of Cognition and how the consumer can most impacted. I have attached the first 5 pages of Milosavljevic and colleagues’, ‘Branding The Brain’, with my highlights to read over.


  1. Jobs, Steve. (1998). Interview. There’s Sanity Returning. BusinessWeek. May 25, 1998.
  2. Plassmann, Ramsøy, Milosavljevic. (2012). Branding the brain: A critical review and outlook. Journal of Consumer Psychology 22, 18–36.
  3. Milosavljevic, M., Koch, C., & Rangel, A. (2011). Consumers can make choices in as little as a third of a second. Judgment and Decision Making, 6(6), 520–530.
  4. Milosavljevic, M., Navalpakkam, V., Koch, C., & Rangel, A. (2011). Relative visual saliency differences induce sizable bias in consumer choice. Working Paper: California Institute of Technology.
  5. Chartrand, T. L., Huber, J., Shiv, B., & Tanner, R. J. (2008). Nonconscious goals and consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(2), 189–201.
  6. Koch, C. (2004). Quest for consciousness: A neurobiological approach. Englewood, CO: Roberts & Company Publishers.
  7. Wolfe, J. M., & Horowitz, T. S. (2004). What attributes guide the deployment of visual attention and how do they do it? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(6), 495–501.
  8. Van Zoest, W., Donk, M., & Theeuwes, J. (2004). The role of stimulus-driven and goal-driven control in saccadic visual selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 30(4), 746–759.
  9. Wheeler, Alina. (2009). Designing Brand Identity. John Wiley and Sons. Hoboken, New Jersey.
  10. Chapman, C. (2010). Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color. Color theory, Legacy: Smashing Magazine.
  11. Krajbich, I., Armel, C., & Rangel, A. (2010). Visual fixations and the computation and comparison of value in simple choice. Nature Neuroscience, 13(10),1292–1298.
  12. Glaholt, M. G., & Reingold, E. M. (2009). Stimulus exposure and gaze bias: A fur- ther test of the gaze cascade model. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 71(3), 445–450.
  13. Simion, C., Shimojo, E., & Scheier, C. (2003). Gaze bias both reflects and influences preference. Nature Neuroscience, 6(12), 1317–1322.
  14. Pieters, R., & Warlop, L. (1999). Visual attention during brand choice: The impact of time pressure and task motivation. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 16(1), 1–16.
  15. Lohse, G. L. (1997). Consumer eye movement patterns on yellow page advertising. Journal of Advertising, 26, 61–73.
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