“Whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant,” goes the popular visualization exercise. And we find that even when told explicitly not to imagine a concept, it’s impossible to prevent that concept from wriggling its way into our brains.

Now think of a brown truck, but whatever you do, don’t think of UPS. Or bring to mind a swoosh without the notion of Nike. How about a pair of golden arches in the shape of an “M”?

The science behind branding and the brain is weighty indeed. But it begins with fundamental truths about visual perception. Firstly, visual perception is our most primary source of information about the world around us. The best way to avoid being eaten by a tiger is to see it coming, after all.

Secondly, visual perceptions trigger ancillary, associated meanings that are the product of repeated exposure over time. Every time you see four intertwined rings in an Audi commercial, the connection between the two is further reinforced.

Finally, the human brain gathers, processes, and interprets visual stimuli in a very predictable fashion: it starts with the simplest type of information and then moves on to increasingly more complex data, which all happens in a fraction of a second.

Alina Wheeler notes in her seminal book Designing Brand Identity, that there are three steps to the sequence of cognition: 1) shape, 2) color, 3) content. Shapes are simple, and processing them first allows for quick decision-making. Color is slightly more complicated, as it’s tied to instinct and emotion. Content, particularly linguistic content, is the most complex, as it must be deciphered before its significance is evident.

This is what’s known as the Sequence of Cognition. When you design your brand’s logo with an understanding of this process, you have the power to radically differentiate it, and foster deep, subconscious connections with your customers. Here’s why.

Shape

Shape is the most basic visual stimulus. Even a colorblind person can differentiate between shapes, and while you don’t need to be literate to identify shapes, you have to be able to identify shapes in order to read. For this reason, the shape of your visual identity is the most fundamental opportunity to differentiate your brand. If brand research reveals that the majority of your competition is represented by circular logos, you should probably consider a different shape. Don’t underestimate the lasting power of that shape either. The Nike swoosh and Apple icon require neither color nor typeface to be instantly recognized by consumers around the world.

Color

Next up on the ladder of complexity, color is the most emotive of visual cues. For this reason, it’s arguably the most visceral of optic stimuli, capable of triggering persuasive subconscious reactions. To capitalize on this, authentic brands architect their color systems to express their personality and stand out from the competition. Color psychology is a vast and complex topic of investigation that’s been ruminated on for centuries.

The effects of colors on the human brain range from the physiological (hunger, blood pressure, adrenal activity) to the psychological (excitement, trust, anger). Studies suggest color can have up to a 60% influence on purchasing decisions. When scanning a shelf of soda pop, we know almost instantly where the Coca-Cola has been stocked—its trademark red color has been etched into our subconscious, with all its attendant messaging. Starbucks green is now so recognizable that the company decided to remove its name from its logo altogether.

Content

Not surprisingly, language comes in as the most complex element in the Sequence of Cognition trifecta. Unlike shapes and colors, the significance of words necessitates a decoding process on the part of the brain. More cognitive effort is required to extract the significance of even a single word than that of an “arrow” shape, or bright yellow “caution” indicator. Shape and color grab the attention of consumers; language takes them to the next step, expressly articulating the value of the product or service at hand.

No one step in the Sequence of Cognition is necessarily more important than the others. Rather, each is dependent on the strength of the other two. The process, however, informs how effective brand identities are created. Good identity designers take their clients step-by-step through the progressive levels of cognition, putting in the due diligence to ensure that the significance of each level is exhaustively explored.

The result should be a cohesive design that both differentiates a brand from its competitors and evokes profound truths about its innermost values. It’s this type of visual identity that enables a brand to foster valuable, subconscious connections with its target audience.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has more than a decade of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Huffington Post, and Brand Quarterly.