Appearance dictates how we form perceptions of the things we encounter, from people, to product packaging, to the places around us and beyond.
Since the importance of appearance has been instilled in our cognitive development within the first few years of our lives, it’s no wonder that visual elements play a crucial role in our susceptibility to marketing techniques.
The practice of successful marketing has seen its share of evolution through the last century. Americans fell into line with P. T. Barnum’s hype proclamations, bought into the “new, improved, and lemon-scented” spiels of the 1940s through the 1960s, and accepted the emergence of marketing and advertising agencies dedicated to the cause.
Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a marketing era that relies not only on what you say and how you say it, but also on how it looks when you present it.
Starting from an early age and progressing throughout our lives, we rely on visual cues to give a sense of recognition and meaning, despite the fact that we are not always conscious of those cues. And with visual-heavy marketing platforms like Instagram and Pinterest securing their spots in the marketer’s toolbox, brands are reconstructing their three-legged milking stools to encompass content, tone, and visuals into one solid strategy.
While each part of the trifecta bears significance, there is a greater emphasis placed on the design aspect, and for good reason. Your website’s one shot of making a strong first impression only lasts a tenth of a second, and the appearance of what you are presenting does most of the talking.
We have often been told never to judge a book by it’s cover, but more often than not our eyes are the first sense to engage in an experience, which means it’s up to the visuals to create the right first impression. Luckily, you don’t have to be a world class artist to leverage some subtle – yet effective – design.
1. Building on early fundamentals
Learning to distinguish red from blue or circles from squares sounds like busy work for preschoolers, but shapes and colors actually play a crucial role in our early stages of cognitive development. Relating colors and formations to the objects and occurrences around us don’t stop when we reach adulthood, either. This means marketers get the chance to tap into another layer of complexity.
For a child, recognizing familiar forms helps them to process the things they encounter. But after we graduate from basic geometry and color identification, our minds continue to associate certain colors with moods, memories, ideas, and emotions that continue to affect how we perceive and interact with the world around us.
You may not consciously realize it, but your brain takes notice of the green grass, square buildings, blue sky, and round lights surrounding you. Your mind recognizes a red stop sign and acts accordingly without completely processing the word “Stop” emblazoned across it. You can tell the difference between a white sand beach and a mud-sheathed water’s edge without physically touching the terrain. And, just like in the popular Logos Quiz app, you can probably recognize a well-known brand’s identity by simply looking at the shape and color of their logo.
Brands and marketers have put this shape-and-color theory to work in crafting logos, collateral material, store displays, web pages, and other elements designed to embed themselves in our cognition. The shape and shade of an object, especially when it comes to product packaging, has been proven to affect sales and customer perceptions.
Lesson learned: With the right blend of hues and forms a brand can paint a permanent picture of itself in our minds using little more than creative artistry.
2. Ride the emotional color wheel
The scientific purpose of color as it applies to art isn’t new. Monet and other impressionists used lighter colors to illustrate softer, relaxing nature scenes; Picasso dominated an entire period of his work with varying tones of blue, occasionally interspersed with other shades, to reflect his burgeoning depression; and Van Gogh used brighter colors to express stronger emotions, like warm yellows of the moon and windows to create hope in the otherwise gloomy Starry Night.
Conversioner illustrates the breakdown of colors and their associated emotional responses:
Just like Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh, your branding should tell a story, complete with an emotional aspect that draws in your audience and leaves a lasting impact on their cognition. You can help achieve this through the right blend of colors, like how ASPCA conveys trust with a dominant blue and elicits positivity with tones of orange:
Lesson learned: Every chapter of your brand story, from landing page design and ad placement to your main website and logo, must reflect the emotions you want to convey to your viewers if you want to create a memorable experience. Engaging the emotional color wheel in every design helps create those cognitive connections, more so than well-crafted marketing prose could accomplish alone.
3. Simplicity sells
You do not need to be a designer by nature to strengthen your message with artistic elements, nor do you need to use every color in the spectrum to make your message stand out. Keeping a clean, minimal design helps eliminate the clutter and makes it easy for your audience to focus on what you want them to do.
England-based graffiti artist Banksy uses mostly black, white and red to keep design simple and draw more attention to the message itself. In scaling down design elements, Banksy’s messages, oftentimes political, are more easily digested without much risk for misinterpretation.
Landing page and ad design are best done with two to three colors and plenty of white space. Choose complementary colors that offer adequate contrast for better visibility, like this example from email marketing platform AWeber:
Or, if dominating white space feels too barren, you might prefer a light-on-dark color scheme, like this one from adtech platform Sekindo:
When designing your layout, follow a few basic rules for higher conversions:
- Don’t overcrowd the page with text
- Focus on one objective – your call to action – and make it obvious exactly what you want your audience to do
- Make your Call-to-Action button bold and obvious
- Keep your data capture form as brief as possible
Lesson learned: Simplicity sells, plain and simple. Stick with a simple design and color palette that can brandish your message without overcomplicating it.
3. The role of pop culture
The role of art in marketing is not limited to meshing the right colors and shapes to make a statement. Pop culture has played a significant role in building a brand’s image, particularly when using prominent icons that appeal to a particular generation or segment to gain their attention.
Hipster culture-driven artist Amit Shimoni has mastered the art of audience targeting through his collection of “historical” paintings. Reaching out with a firm hand to modern-day cool kids, Shimoni transforms history into “HIPSTORY,” portraying classic historical and popular figures as trendy, up-to-the-minute hipsters, like this portrayal of George Washington:
Shimoni’s historical artwork-with-a-twist won’t find itself on the walls of every home and dorm room, but it will find its way to the people his art was intended for. Shimoni found his following among the younger crowd, and with pop culture icons leading the charge, he continues to reflect the interests and personalities of the ones who have made his brand a success.
Lesson learned: You don’t always have to go for mass appeal to attract a steady audience. In fact, when you ditch the mass appeal and narrowly segment your audience, you can laser focus your marketing efforts and offer “a lot for a few” instead of “a little for many.”
4. The brand behind the logo
If you had to pick the Target or McDonald’s logo out of a lineup, you probably could with little or no effort. These logos, among hundreds of others, are well recognized for a reason: it’s all about simplicity.
There’s a lot of information and personality built into a brand’s image, and the logo should reflect as much of it as possible while forgoing complexity, just as the photography website Life of Pix has done with their camera logo:
When it comes to creating a logo, it doesn’t always pay to go for an eye-catching design, primarily because you will be taking away the focus from the messaging of every ad, web page, and print publication you create. Some companies have ponied up big funds for unique, complex designs, with the anticipation that creativity wins all.
However, most big name brands, and a large majority of the fastest growing companies of 2017, prefer to put simplicity first when it comes to brand design. Many companies believe that a simple logo is most memorable. This approach ensures your logo amplifies your brand rather than stealing it’s thunder.
Tailor Brands, for instance, has taken this simplistic approach to heart and created their entire mission around crafting simple yet aesthetic logos in minutes. With a few key pieces of information, their system formulates logos that help companies reach their branding goals without breaking the bank.
Lesson learned: Sometimes, brands get entangled in forcing creativity that they ultimately design a logo that does nothing to visually represent what their business is about (at least, not at first glance). But if you want a design that captures the mind – as well as the eyes – it’s best to keep your logo simple and let creativity happen naturally.
5. One final lesson
While there exists numerous scientific studies supporting the influence of art and design in the marketing world, keep in mind there is no set-in-stone solution that guarantees conversions. There are strong arguments supporting the psychological factors of artistic marketing, but the reasons behind our reaction to colors and design can also depend on the following:
- Cultural Norms: Colors can signify different meanings in various cultures. To the French, yellow is a symbol of jealousy, while Americans perceive yellow as a synonym for cowardice.
- Personal Experiences: Color plays a prominent role in our memories. We may feel attuned to a particular shade or hue because it evokes pleasant scenes from our past, like grandmother’s tablecloth dotted with bright yellow sunflowers or your navy blue bedroom from your childhood.
- Demographics: Age and ethnicity can impact how we perceive shapes and colors. For instance, children are more attracted to bright, wild colors, while older adults tend to gravitate toward more muted hues.
Indeed, there exists an expansive realm of opportunity when it comes to the art of marketing, although it does take some dedication, research and craftiness to use it correctly. Investing in good design – even in its simplest form – can mean the difference between growing in the green or sinking in the red.