subconscious stimuli

It was as if I had been teleported from home to my office without any effort on my part.


My office has always been located in the downtown area of Salt Lake, despite my home being some 20 miles south in the suburbs. Sure, the drive is pretty familiar after 30 years, but one morning a few months ago I arrived at my office parking spot somewhat surprised. My mind had been preoccupied and I was amazed that I had driven the 20 miles without a single conscious decision about where I was going or what I was doing. In fact, I remembered absolutely nothing about my drive downtown. It was as if I had been teleported from home to my office without any effort on my part.

According to Shankar Vedantam, Washington Postscience writer and author of The Hidden Brain, my story of the drive downtown is a perfect example of how our subconscious minds can manipulate us without our awareness.

In a public radio broadcast, Vedantam relates how a ten-week test revealed differences between unnoticed visual stimuli. At an office beverage counter, an on-you-honor sign asked you to pay for whatever soft drink or coffee you consumed. In the first case, the eye-level sign was adorned with innocuous flowers. Subsequently the image of the flowers was changed to a pair of watching eyes. In the end, no one even noticed the pictures, flowers or eyes—and yet they had a dramatic effect upon behavior. Contributions to the honor system were much more likely to be made by those who were being “watched”, even though they were not real eyes.

Such is an example of our subconscious mind at work. The author explains that our hidden brain is a dumb system: that we act unaware, whether making decisions about driving a car or contributing to an on-your-honor cup of coffee.

The work of designers often operates within the hidden brain. We find the means to communicate to an audience about our message—both subtly and overtly—through the use of form, color and typography.

I have written beforeabout the minute nuances that shape a typeface and how it communicates unconsciously with everyone, regardless of your familiarity with the vocabulary of typography. The language of design suggests an object’s gender and reflects authenticity or its opposite: crass salesmanship. Design is the language that helps to define, or to signal value. It creates the visual clues that signal whether something is precious or cheap.

Enhancing perceived value is one of the primary goals of corporate design. This becomes very important if your product or service is not the low-price leader. Seth Godin recently commentedon his friend who wanted to buy Dr. Dre’s $300 headphones. Any audiophile will tell you that they sound like $39 headphones. As Godin points out, “But of course, that’s not the question. It’s not what sounds better, it’s what’s worth it.” And what it’s worth is subjective, depending on many factors. As the on-your-honor test showed, visual stimuli have a remarkable affect, even if you are unaware. And if it weren’t so, we probably wouldn’t be in business.

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