The science behind branding and the brain is extensive, but it all begins with the way we perceive the world around us—the process of visual perception known as the sequence of cognition.
The sequence of cognition outlines how we process visual information. It turns out there’s a very predictable way our brains make sense of the visual stimuli they receive.
So, what is the sequence of cognition, and why is it important for your brand? In what follows, we’ll take a look at the answers to these questions and more.
What is the Sequence of Cognition
The sequence of cognition is the order in which our brains process visual information. Specifically, the sequence is: 1) shape, 2) color, 3) content.
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.
From the earliest days of avoiding predators, the human brain began gathering, processing, and interpreting visual stimuli in a very predictable fashion: it starts with the simplest type of information and then moves on to increasingly more complex data.
This all happens in a fraction of a second, of course, but as Alina Wheeler notes in her seminal branding book, Designing Brand Identity, the progression of visual complexity starts with shape, then color, and finally 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.
Understanding the sequence of cognition can help you build a more powerful brand.
This is because when you design your brand’s visual identity with the sequence of cognition in mind, you can more effectively differentiate it, and foster deep, subconscious connections with your customers.
Visual perceptions trigger associations, after all, which are reinforced after repeated exposure over time. Every time you see golden arches and associate them with the smell of French fries, the connection between the two is reinforced.
Let’s take a closer look at the steps in the sequence of cognition to see how each plays a role in branding and the brain.
Shape is the most basic visual stimulus. Even someone who is unable to distinguish between colors 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 a brand audit reveals that the majority of your competition uses circular logos, you might want to consider a different shape for your own mark.
Don’t underestimate the lasting power of the shape you choose, either. The Nike swoosh and Apple icon require neither color nor typeface to be instantly recognized by consumers around the world.
Next up on the ladder of complexity, color is the most emotive of visual cues. For this reason, it’s arguably the most visceral visual stimuli, capable of triggering persuasive subconscious reactions.
To capitalize on this, successful brands architect their color systems to express their personality and stand out from the competition. Brand color psychology is a complex subject that’s been explored for decades.
This is because the effects that colors have on the human brain range from the physiological (hunger, blood pressure, adrenal activity) to the psychological (excitement, trust, anger). Studies even suggest color can have up to a 60% influence on purchasing decisions.
When scanning the shelves at the supermarket, for example, we don’t have to search very hard for Coca-Cola. The brand’s trademark red has been etched into our subconscious over a lifetime of repeated exposures, along with associations like sweet and refreshing.
Not surprisingly, language comes in as the most complex element in the sequence of cognition. 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. With complexity, of course, comes richer and more nuanced meaning.
Where shape and color grab the attention of your customers; your brand name and/or brand messaging takes them to the final step, explicitly articulating the benefits of your company, product, or service.
As we mentioned earlier, some brands are so well known they no longer need linguistic content in their logos.
In addition to Nike and Apple, the latest iteration of the Starbucks logo has dropped the name of the brand altogether.
By now, the overwhelming majority of consumers simply understand that the shape of a mermaid in a forest green circle signifies the world’s largest retail coffee brand—as well as the “third space” brand experience the company has invested so much in cultivating.
Taking the bold step of removing your brand name entirely from your visual identity is as sure a sign as any that you have a company, product, or service with world-class brand equity.
Shape, color, content: no one step in the sequence of cognition is more important than the others. Rather, each is dependent on the strength of the other two. The process, however, informs how effective visual identities are created.
Good visual 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 its brand personality and positioning. It’s this type of visual identity that enables a brand to foster valuable, subconscious connections with its target audiences.