When Snap updated its iconic ‘Ghostface Chillah’ logo last week with little more than a thicker keyline edge, no doubt the photo messaging app execs went to bed with other worries on their mind. Yet, much to their surprise the next morning, this seemingly harmless tweak to its core visual asset left the Twitteratti incensed; some even threatened to leave the app. At first look the change was nominal and aimed at making the logo more visible and eye-catching. So why the furore?
To understand why, we need to delve into our subconscious.
Updating visual assets is a routine but important process many brands periodically go through to keep up with the Joneses, avoid looking outdated or simply express how the company is evolving. The visual asset ends up telling more than a thousand words instantly, which is why brands invest in them, and they are almost always the first interaction a customer has with the brand. Any update to a brand identity – whether a new logo, a piece of packaging or even a branded experience – must therefore consider both the conscious and subconscious ways in which people decode the changes.
There are some definitive neuroscience principles that are at play here which can help us understand how even modest design tweaks like Snap’s can rattle customers
How do we decode the world, and why does it matters?
People decode the world around them through system one and system two. Most of people’s decisions on brands take place in the rapid-processing, ‘unconscious thinking’ part of the brain: system one (even if we then rationalise them sometimes in the conscious thinking system two brain).
System two is where most of our heavy-lifting learning takes place. And once we’ve processed in system two, it becomes encoded in system one – something instantaneous, automatic and subconscious. Much like learning to drive. At first it takes effort and considerable concentration, but in time it becomes something effortless we no longer need to think about.
In the world of branding this means that we learn the meaning of the visual codes associated with a brand in system two, which is then encoded in system one. It’s what neuroscientists would call ‘learning by association’.
This is why understanding what design assets a brand should use is so important – what may seem harmless to the conscious mind may be impactful subconsciously.
What does this mean for brands?
The challenge for brands and designers is to ensure consumers are able to decode a brand instantly and automatically, seeing it and understanding it effortlessly.
So it’s understandable why Snap retained much of its previous logo, colourways and shape. Snap clearly wasn’t seeking a bold move that radically changes its core visual asset. The issue that caused the backlash is not that people no longer recognise their brand – it’s still discernibly ‘Snap’ – rather people seem to be having a visceral and immediate reaction to the change.
When it comes to brand design, ultimately God is in the detail. And that is because of what the neuroscientists call ‘Thin Slicing’, the process of finding patterns in events and interactions with things based only on “thin slices”, or narrow windows, of experience. Our brains are capable of decoding huge amounts of information from very small slivers of detail. The thicker keyline may seem like a small change and onlookers may wonder what the big deal is but the thicker keyline in itself has meaning, and in this case the change from the thin keyline to the thick keyline is enough for people to reject it. The logo certainly loses some of its modernity and elegance with the thicker keyline.
So what can brands do with this info?
A key lesson here for brands is that what may seem one small step for design to the conscious eye can turn out to be one giant leap for the unconscious mind of your loyal customers or users who are used to digesting the brand in a certain way. It’s perhaps a harsh lesson, but not one that can be overlooked – especially now we’ve decoded it.
Read the full article in The Drum in August, 2019.