Why successful brands rely on distinctive design 

How do we actually ‘see’ brands and what role does design play in how we perceive and remember them? Design takes the logical and turns it into something intuitive. By evoking feelings, it has the power to connect to your audience’s subconscious mind.

The most successful brands in the world share one thing in common. They know exactly how to take their customers from a place of contemplation and confusion to a place of ease – somewhere they feel safe and connected to, otherwise known as System 1 thinking. So let’s explore the rationale behind how design creates such strong emotional connections.

Design translates strategy into feelings

Design has the power to lift strategy off the page and create something that can be perceived by all our senses. According to Freud “aesthetics are not merely the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling.” If we apply Freud’s ideas to branding, I believe it means that people’s emotional responses will be stronger when the brand design and messaging are more distinctive. And our brain tends to hold on to emotions and forgets facts.

Aesthetics are not merely the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling.

Sigmund Freud

Contrary to common beliefs, we’re not rational beings, we’re emotional beings. It’s true. Most of the decisions we make never surface to our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind creates them in split seconds. Try to picture how long it would take you to complete your weekly shopping by logic alone – it would take weeks.

System 1 & 2 Thinking

We perceive information through all our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch – and we primarily navigate the world through our inherent instincts, learned behaviours and skills, the cultural and social norms that surround us, and our own experiences and associations. Our conscious or rational mind kicks in when we need to understand more complex situations. It helps us to question, reflect and analyse.

Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel prize for his life-long scientific research on human decision making, describes this process as System 1 and System 2 thinking.

System 1 is our autopilot, a rapid evaluation or judgement system that is shaped by evolution and helps us to survive. It makes a basic assessment of what is happening around us and prevents us from cognitive overload. It filters what’s worth pursuing. System 1 runs with cognitive ease and little energy is needed. In this state, we trust our intuitions and feel comfortable.

We perceive information through all our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch – and we primarily navigate the world through our inherent instincts.

System 2, our pilot, takes over when things get too difficult for System 1. It activates when we need to logically question, reflect or analyse information, and it also operates our self-control – it regulates the impulses of System 1. This process requires effort and energy, resulting in cognitive strain. In this state, we tend to be in a careful or even suspicious.

This means that great brands that deliver their core message within seconds have the power to largely bypass System 2, purely by creating cognitive ease and keeping us as much as possible in System 1 mode. That’s of huge value to brand building. But how exactly do we create cognitive ease through design and words?

Leveraging System 1 thinking to build distinctive brands

The aim of branding is to keep our audience within System 1 thinking for as long as possible. As we experience the world with all our senses, we have an instant emotional System 1 reaction to colours, shapes, sounds, smells and textures, but also to numbers and words.

The job of creatives is to create visual and verbal assets that take both systems into account. They translate brand strategy into simple, clear signals and cues that our unconscious mind can decode through intuition, learned skills and behaviours, cultural norms, experiences, and associations.

The stronger the emotional reaction and the more consistent brand assets are used across brand touchpoints, the more memorable, recognisable and familiar your brand becomes.

Designers and copywriters leverage System1 thinking by creating a range of distinctive brand assets – logos, fonts, colours, shapes, illustrations, mascots, taglines, smells, textures, sounds – that evoke a strong emotional response and create associations to brands in people’s minds. Designers can create branding that feels calm, lively, dynamic, serious, expensive, safe, etc by drawing on brand attributes or industry specific codes.

The stronger the emotional reaction and the more consistent brand assets are used across brand touchpoints, the more memorable, recognisable and familiar your brand becomes. We build brand associations, or mental availability, and choose the brands that come to mind the quickest. Great branding is vital for creating mental shortcuts to brands in customers’ minds.

Get in touch

Does your branding send the right signals and cues to your audience? Is your brand perceived as you want it to be? Contact us for a chat to discuss how you can leverage System 1 thinking for your brand building.

About Franzi Scheithauer

Franzi is Creative Director at Studio Brand Up and specialises in brand strategy and identity design.