Tag Archives | psychology

Can you see the lion?


I walked past this shop when I was in Brighton the other day, and was struck by the simplicity of their logo. With just a few black-and-white squiggles, you ‘see’ the proud face of the King of the Beasts.

When I draw a mouse, I just include a pointy nose, two little round ears, one S-shape to show the curve of its back, and another S-shape to show its long tail. Everyone knows what it is, even though my drawing doesn’t have a face, whiskers, belly, legs or feet.

Look at the smiley face in my logo. It doesn’t have eyes (I didn’t include them because I was worried it would look too druggy). It doesn’t have a nose. But it still looks like a face. The only important element is the smile – I wanted it to represent positivity and happiness, and suggest a pleasant working experience and successful results.

Similarly, if you look at the four dots below, chances are you will see a square.

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This effect is explained by Gestalt theory: ‘The whole is other than the sum of the parts’. There are some interesting examples on Wikipedia.

But why am I telling you this?

  1. Because my fascination with (and training in) psychology informs all the copy and design recommendations I make for clients.
  2. Because it’s the reason why I always make things as simple as possible (I call it Writing Without Waffle).
  3. Because you can use this idea to benefit your own logo designs and marketing content. You only have to provide a minimal amount of information as your reader’s brain will fill in the gaps.

Top tip: Keep it simple.


My good deed for the day

On Saturday, I attended the London region meeting of the Professional Speakers Association, which is held in the lovely Art Deco RIBA building near Regent’s Park.

As I sat and waited in the foyer for my guest to arrive, I watched one attendee after another walk in and ask the receptionist where the meeting was. This, despite the fact that there was a sign, right in the middle of the reception desk, stating the room and the floor.

The receptionist went off to fulfil some other duties, and one attendee after another walked in and asked ME where the meeting was. The sign was still there, but they just didn’t see it.

After I’d given directions a couple of times, I stood up, walked over, and positioned the sign diagonally at the corner of the desk, right in the line of sight of anyone entering the building (as shown).


Every other attendee I observed arriving looked straight at the sign and headed off immediately – they didn’t even notice me sitting opposite the desk.

So why am I telling you this?

Because one of my interests is cognitive psychology (particularly, how the brain processes words and symbols on paper and on screen), and how this affects navigation, signage and information design.

To me, it was common sense to put the sign where people could see it, rather than in a place where it was obviously being overlooked.

In supermarkets, branded products are displayed in the main eyeline of each aisle to help people find related products quickly. Next time you visit, have a look at the baked bean display and see where they’ve placed the Heinz cans compared with their own-brand.

In print, the eye usually follows a Z-pattern as it scans the page. On websites, it’s an F-pattern. (Although designers can make clever use use of white space to change this.)

You need to know what to put where to ensure your reader looks where you want them to look, and takes the action you want them to take. Ask me if you’d like some help with this.


Psychology, commonsense and copywriting

I was on a train that had ‘RAPE HER’ written in big red letters with an arrow pointing to a particular seat. It was a crowded carriage but the graffiti put an ugly thought into everyone’s heads and no-one wanted to sit there. Even though we didn’t want to read it, we couldn’t help ourselves.

On the other hand, I’ve been on trains in countries where I can’t read the language, and wondered what the graffiti says. Without meaning, words are just squiggles with no impact.

As well as being a trained journalist and professional copywriter, I have a degree in psychology. Not just social psychology (how people tick), but also cognitive psychology (how the brain processes words and symbols on paper and on screen).

One of the things I learned about is the Stroop effect — an experiment that shows, once you know how to read, you can’t NOT read. Subjects are shown a list of colour names written in a different colour from the one they describe (so blue might be in red, green might be in yellow etc.) The task is to read the colour NOT the word, and most people find it surprisingly difficult. If you’d like to test yourself, just Google ‘Stroop effect’ and you’ll find plenty of examples.

What this means for your marketing communications

Because people just can’t help reading, the main points of any sales message should be written in bigger type, so they can’t be missed. On posters, use bold headlines that tease people to read on. On websites, use main headings and sub-headings that make sense for skim-readers. On exhibition displays, use signage that tells the whole story at-a-glance.

In line with my fascination with psychology, I also qualified as an NLP Practitioner. NLP = Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Neuro as in neurons as in brain. Linguistic as in language. And Programming as in programming a computer.

I didn’t study NLP in order to become a coach, as many do, but more to understand the power of language to influence behaviour. One book I found particularly interesting was Words That Change Minds by Shelly Rose Charvet. I’m excited that she’s flying over from Canada to speak at an event I’m attending later this year.

Her book covers NLP meta-programs. For example, some people have a ‘towards’ motivation strategy and like to move towards a goal, while others have an ‘away’ motivation strategy and prefer to move away from a problem.

What this means for your marketing communications

If you sell insurance, your customers probably have an ‘away’ strategy. That’s why insurance adverts tend to focus on the problems e.g. What would do you if your house burned down / your computer crashed / your car got stolen. People with a ‘towards’ strategy tend not to buy insurance, because they don’t think anything bad will ever happen to them.

I had a client with a strong ‘towards’ strategy. He insisted that headlines had to be written about ‘improving the bottom-line’. I always made sure I also included something about ‘making savings’, to attract the percentage of his customers that had an ‘away’ strategy.

This fascination with psychology means my copywriting has a sound rationale behind it, and the words I write are more likely to achieve the results you want.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking


Exploring the Stroop effect

Your task is to say the colour not read the word:











Did you find that tricky? Once reading has become automatic, your brain can’t *not* do it. This gives copywriters a power and responsibility when we’re writing text for posters, headlines and subject lines that people just can’t miss.

More about the ‘Stroop effect’ on Wikipedia