The Science of Great Design

Why experimentation is the most valuable tool in our arsenal.

by Adam Morgan

posted on 04-10-2018

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Everyone in our industry knows about subjectivity — the moment when we present our ideas to a creative director or a client and the response is, “It just doesn’t feel right.” Our understanding of creativity is inherently subjective, and I think that’s a good thing.

But this squishy, qualitative evaluation also leads to confusion. It’s easy for us to second guess our initial instincts. This is partly because of how we were trained.

We creative types learned design as a craft — we sketch, whiteboard, and brainstorm. We’ve learned to empathize with the audience and train our brains to focus on emotions. We learn theory, and use data, sure, but for many of our stakeholders, design is considered a “soft skill.” And now it’s time we started thinking of design as more of a science.

In my upcoming book, I use hard science to prove how creative ideas are better for the bottom line. Some clients ask me, “Why do we need a creative idea when a straightforward benefit works fine?” My answer is that the way the brain makes decisions and creates memories is by connecting neurons and lighting up the brain with neurochemicals, also known as the regulators of emotion. In other words, emotions are the glue behind decisions and memories. The more emotion present, the stronger the connection. So, by making good creative we’re literally using emotions to rewire our audience’s brain.

Every designer is aware of the influence of neuroscience on some level. For example, we know red is the color of violence and passion (in America at least, in Japan it’s the color of happiness). And we know blue represents a feeling of trustworthiness — hence Facebook’s blue banner. We also know the nagging pleasure of something artfully out-of-symmetry, and the similar discomfort of something seeming too symmetrical.

So how does our brain react to design? And if designers knew more about the way it works, would we use a more scientific approach in our everyday work?

Thankfully, there’s a wealth of material on the subject — if you’re willing to have an open mind to science. See, a lot of scientists are incredibly interested in the way art impacts the brain, especially when it comes to vision, because our vision is one of the best ways to see the inner workings of the brain.

Visual design starts in the eye. One great book on this subject is Margaret Livingstone’s “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing.” This book lays out how the two main functions of the eye — rendering luminance and color and discerning edges and motion­ — explain why certain pieces of art are effective, arresting, and beautiful.

Consider the line drawing, one of the first crafts we learn. How does something so simple convey so much information? Like the humble horseshoe crab, whose simple eyes were instrumental in the discovery of this phenomenon, our eye is designed to perceive discontinuities in our field of vision. So the “edge” created by a line drawing is interpreted as a shape, which our brain interprets and categorizes.

Sensing visual stimulus — the black line on a white paper — is a bottom-up function. The light reflected off the paper is absorbed by the retina and sent to the visual centers in the brain. The perception or interpretation of that line drawing is what’s known as a top-down function. This is where our higher brain functions, like memory and emotion, process the visual stimuli and say, “Hey, that looks like a rabbit.”

That top-down function plays a huge part in what makes something beautiful or arresting. We can look to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran to know why. In his book “The Tell-Tale Brain,” he lays out nine theories of aesthetics, along with their neurobiological backgrounds.

One of these is “grouping,” which we’re all familiar with. The Gestalt school suggested that the human brain has an innate disposition to creating patterns and meaning. Grouping, according to V.S., may derive from our need to see predators in the wild. If you see a bunch of yellow patches in the rough shape of a lion obscured by foliage, your brain compiles them into a lion. That’s an evolutionary advantage — those poor individuals whose brains didn’t group — well, more for the lion.

Everything we see, every logo we design, every interface we create has some root in our survival imperative. That’s evolution, our body’s goal is to pass on our genes. Our love of symmetry may have to do with the fact that predators and potential mates are similarly symmetrical.

“Art involves the hyperactivation of visual and emotional areas,” writes V.S., “in a way that a picture of a house or duck would not.” Thankfully, there’s a lot of crossover between fine art and design, and there’s a lot we as creatives can take from this research.

A neurological insight goes a long way to explaining why we like what we like. But what does that mean for us creatives? How can we start viewing our work scientifically?

Let’s bring it back to art. In his book “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science,” Nobel-winning neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel again looks at the ways in which brain science and abstract art overlap. Unlike Margaret and V.S., however, Eric focuses how these two disciplines have both used the specific technique of reductionism to test new theories and break new ground.

Reductionism in science is the process of breaking a large experiment down to testable component parts, and then combining those results to form a cohesive thesis. Reductionism in art, not dissimilarly, is the practice of reducing a work to its elemental parts — color, line, and gesture.

So the modern artists like de Koonig broke from figurative work to explore the dynamism of a line. Mondrian experimented with color and proximity to create energy. Rothko further mined the world of color to portray complex emotion. More recently, James Turrell has used light to challenge how we perceive space.

What “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science” conveys so well is the overlap between the worlds of art and science — the drive to experiment. Experimentation is how Mondrian used his innate understanding of color and proximity to create his “Boardwalk Boogie Woogie,” with its crosswalks and avenues of red, yellow, and blue, that force the eye to shimmy across the canvas.

So what does this mean for designers? The discipline increasingly relies on data and new thinking to capture our audience’s attention. It’s at the forefront of culture and technology. Design is in the perfect position to merge the twin worlds of the qualitative and quantitative, to make design less of a pure craft and more of a science.

I encourage all of you to think of your brainstorming sessions as experiments, your desktop as a lab. That way, when a client or stakeholder comes back with subjective feedback, you can counter with objective facts.

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Topics: Creativity, Design