Creating Illusions in Branding

How to craft the perception you want for your brand by adjusting fine details.

Design, by its nature, doesn’t really have any rules. If it did, designers would break them, trying to be creative. It’s in our nature to always question what should be done, what can be done and how it can be done. Also, aesthetics are incredibly relative, so not a lot of design rules really stand the test of experimentation or the test of time.

The only thing that matters, to us as designers, is how is the person who sees this going to react? What are they going to see, what are they going to feel? Kurt Koffka, a Gestalt psychologist, studied visual cognition and came up with a few principles to try to understand how people see things.

To me, these principles are really the only universal aspect of design – not really rules as what you should or shouldn’t do, just a way to understand how people will react to what you create.

“The whole is altogether different than the sum of its parts”

Kurt Koffka

To me this phenomenon is a bit mesmerizing once you start to notice it everywhere. The key word here is “different” not “greater” as you may have heard this phrase before. The basic underlying idea of this theory is that when people see objects, they identify them individually, but when they see the whole – they see something else entirely, perhaps unrelated to the individual parts. The best way to demonstrate this is with an optical illusion. Try seeing if you can identify the image on the right. None of the individual shapes are identifiable, but if you take a step back you might see the whole image.

What’s incredible about this is that you see an image in the relationship between the elements without being able to recognize a single element. The underlying theory here is that we can potentially change what you see with just some subtle detail changes. Take the images on the left: the shades of grey that you see on the inner circle, the shape that you see and even how you feel about images are slightly different even though the basic components are the same.

Here’s where it gets interesting – this is not just a design principle. When you look at a person’s face, you identify them as a person, not a combination of facial features. If your wife changes her hair, you (should) notice that something is different. You can’t tell which individual part is different – and while you know that this is the same person, your brain is telling you that the whole of this person feels different.

It’s not just a visual principle either. A pinch of salt or a touch of lemon can completely change the way you experience a dish for the first time and your first impressions of what that dish is. Even the poor guy playing the triangle in a magnificent orchestra is due his credit. This is the most significant rule to understand about branding: your brand is a whole experience for someone and all the elements and details craft something unique every time you make a change.

Identifying a Brand

Your customer goes through a journey when they learn about your company and there are a lot of different paths through your brand identity. Someone who interacts with you personally, then sees an advertisement, then reads your white paper will have a different impression of what you are than someone who did it in a different order. So if you’re putting together a new campaign or product, take a step back and ask yourself how will people’s initial reaction be altered? Does it compliment what we’re doing? Does it change our overall message?

Does this offering confuse customers? If we sell both protein shakes and baseball hats, will that add to the experience? What about the mural on the back wall, how does that tie into all this? When someone walks into a store they come with up a little narrative as to what this place is, and more specifically, what it’s good for. Even more significantly, they tell others that little narrative.

Not only does it make decisions around smaller details easier, but with practice, you can understand and unlock that relationship between details and the bigger picture. This is where this theory becomes powerful: if you have a specific message and point all the elements towards that same narrative, you’ll gain control over how people react.