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How Your Brain “Sees” a Logo—Still More Science

When a new business sets out to design a logo, there will be a multitude of factors to consider. Color, layout, font, and style are just of the few choices that a new CEO will need to make when using an online logo maker.

As veteran designers, our team has gone through the logo design process, many times, but we never sat down to think about what was going on inside our heads when we created or saw a logo.

The whole process is surprisingly complex and still takes just a little under 400 milliseconds—less than half a second.

We took a look through a stack of scientific journals to find out what scientists have been learning from the latest brain science—and to learn how humans “see” and think about the logos they encounter.

We compiled what we found into an infographic that you can post on your website or share on social media. We think this stuff is fascinating and hope you do too.

To see a larger version, just click the link at the bottom of the infographic.

How Your Brain “Sees” a Logo

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This info graphic is also available as a presentation!

Some of our other posts on Logos and Science:
How a Logo “Primes” You to Think
How Logos Trigger High and Low Information Thinking
Logos, Familiarity, and Cognitive Ease

For those of you who would rather just read the text (and for the Googlebot), here’s the most interesting stuff from the graphic:

What Your Brain is “Looking” At:

Scientists believe that your eye doesn’t see color at all—your brain creates it through neural processes that take place along the fusiform gyrus, the hippocampus, and the primary visual cortex located at the back of the brain.1,2

Once the color is identified near the back of the visual cortex, a signal is sent forward to the “what pathway” near the front of the visual cortex where shape and objects are recognized. It can even see shapes that aren’t there (like objects hidden in the white space of a logo). 3

While color and shape are “bottom up” information, that is, it is gathered from the immediate environment; context and meaning is “top down” information added by your memory to help you understand and think about what it all means. This process uses many parts of the brain, but primarily the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex where emotions and rewards are processed.

What Science Says About A Logo’s Effect on Your Thinking
Over the past two decades, neuroscientist have used brain imaging (fMRI) to take a closer look at how we think about logos. Here are some of the most interesting findings:

  • There isn’t a single place in the brain where logos are processed. Sports and luxury brands (like Nike and Mercedes) trigger responses in the medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus, while value brands (like Wal-mart) activate neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex.4
  • Brands that we like elicit activity in the ventral medial frontal pole, which is the area where we form self-esteem and the idea of who we are. This would suggest that our favorite brands play a large role in how we see ourselves. Something like: I’m a Coke person. Or, I’m the kind of person who likes and uses Apple products.5
  • Our familiarity with a logo design determines which part of the brain thinks about it when we see it. “Strong” brands tend to trigger activity in the part of the brain associated with positive emotions and reward (pallidum, posterior cingulate and frontal cortex), while unknown brands activate neurons in areas of the brain associated with negative emotions (insula). This suggests that people use experience not declarative information to evaluate brands.6
  • We do not think about logos the same way we think about trivial objects or even animals. Well-liked brands trigger responses in the same brain areas where human relationships (friendships for example) are processed. This may mean that biologically there is very little difference between relationships between two humans and a human and a brand.7
  • Logos can actually change behavior. When scientists showed (subliminally) an Apple logo to some students, and an IBM logo to others, the students who saw the Apple logo performed better on a creativity test. Students shown a Disney logo (again subliminally) performed better on an honesty test than student who saw an E! TV logo.8


1 “Study Shows that Color Plays Musical Chairs in the Brain”, UChicagoNews, October 2, 2009.
2 Zeki, S. and Ludovica, Marina, “Three Cortical Stages of Colour Processing in the Human Brain”, Brain, Vol 121, pp. 1669-1685, 1998.
3 Sanguinetti, Joseph, et all, “The Ground Side of an Object: Perceived as Shapeless yet Processed for Semantics”, Psychological Science, November 12, 2013.
4 Schaefer, Michael and Rotte, Michael, “Thinking on Luxury or Pragmatic Brand Products: Brain Reponses to Different Categories of Culturally Based Brands”, Brain Research, Vol. 1165, Aug. 24, 2007, pp, 98-104.
5 Journal of Customer Behaviour, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2012, pp. 69-93(25)
6 Esch, Franz-Rudolf, “Brands on the Brain: Do Consumers Use Declarative Information or Experienced Emotions to Evaluate Brands?” Journal of Consumer Psychology, Vol. 22.1, Jan. 2012, pp. 75-85.
7 Santos, José Paulo, “Perceiving Brands After Logo Perception: An Event-related fMRI Study” Online: bit.ly/1usO5ue
8 Fitzsimons, Grainne, et all, “Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behavior: How Apple Makes You ‘Think Different’”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35, June 2008, pp. 21-35.

Designer: Dave Riley. 

Amber Ooley
Amber Ooley
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