The science behind stand-out visuals

How do you create the most impactful visuals for your business that you possibly can? We spoke to Paul Buckley, a marketing psychologist, who explained the science behind branding and why what consumers see affects their behaviour.

"From a marketing point of view, colour affects you in three ways: it’s either readability (which generally isn’t that important for marketing), there’s getting attention, and there’s also context - what does it mean? What’s the association to a customer with a particular colour?" He explains.

But first, the important thing Paul says we need to remember is that "you never see a colour in isolation".  Even when you look at the sun, it’s always got a blue sky by it - and that, Paul explains, will affect how noticeable it is.

"You get people saying yellow is the brightest colour but it depends on the context," he says. "If it’s on white, no it isn’t, but if it’s on black - yes. Consequently, there’s no such thing as 'the brightest colour', you’ve always got to look at the context of it."

So don’t go telling your designer to 'just make the advert bright and stand-out'.

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While Paul says that readability isn’t too important for marketing, you do need to make sure that customers can read your advert. Consider that generally people read at about 40 centimetres and do a quick check of what you’ve produced – and make sure that the important information is clearly visible (any legal disclaimers or allergy advice that has to be shown).

"There's research going back to the 30s looking at how readable things are in different coloured text but it's not really that sort of a marketing point of view. Other than the fact that if you're doing something like food there are regulations on how noticeable things like nutritional information has to be," Paul says. "There's been companies that have tried to fiddle with things they don't want to read, putting it in hard to read colour contrasts, for example."

But he says, what’s more interesting in terms of marketing and branding is grabbing people’s attention. "Generally, colours like cyan and yellow stand out on most backgrounds," he says. "But it depends on the context."

And, potentially more important than the colours that you’re employing is the way that the advert is laid out. "You could have information that's in very bright colours but it appears in a less than optimal position on the billboard so people just don't notice it. So you've got things like size of information, position, whether it's on an advert or on a computer screen or it's on a billboard whatever it might be, the actual layout of the information."

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"For example if you think of a billboard and someone has a picture of someone pointing, your eyes will follow that person's arm to see what they're pointing at," Paul explains. "In general people look at a frame, in Western society at least, and start on the left and your eyes move to the right and then down. Information that is on the on the right hand side, therefore, tends to get noticed more. And obviously you can enhance that with colour if it's in a suboptimal position, say the bottom left, which is the worst position to put your information. You can try and pull the information out by using brighter colours or brighter colour combinations, if it's in a poor position."

Though Paul admits that’s hard to do - and even harder to test.

Another challenge to overcome is that of frame. Paul talks about how when you’ve got something like a label on a bottle, consumers will only generally look at the main label - they tend to ignore any additional bottle neck tabs, even if they are brightly coloured. "We’ll look at something frames in some way, we’ll look in the frame and we won’t look outside of the frame. You could try to overcome some of that with colour but people are going to focus on what the main feature is. And in general they tend to go for the middle - or just below the middle - what they call the optical centre. So information that is around about the middle, if it’s in a bright colour, will get people’s attention but other information could get missed."

While you can try to overcome some of these challenges with clever colour combinations, Paul is sceptical as to how successful that would be. "Even with colour, you can make it bright but it might not necessarily stand out," he says.

In fact, less is more seems to be Paul’s policy. "You don’t want too much information or too many colours on a piece of advertising media. You’ll be risking information overload and the important messaging can get buried," he explains. "There’s research that suggests you want to use about six colours on an advert - but even that’s quite a lot. Really you need to try to use a more minimal range if you can because it will have more impact."

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