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The Psychological Power of Graphic Design – Manipulating Your Market Through Eye Appeal
As a professional marketer, you are governed by whatever your clients are hoping to sell. Sometimes it’s a useful, valuable product; sometimes it’s a dry, esoteric concept. More often than not, it is something that no one really needs, but it is your job to sell it. The client has put his trust in you and will pay you for your effort. No one ever said marketing was always going to be fun and glamorous.
Given the task of creating an ad, a website, a brochure or trade show display, your goal is to present your client’s job so every eye will be drawn to it, regardless of whether they need it or will ultimately buy it.
First question I would ask is, who is its target market? If we’re selling a geriatric product or service, it’s far different from selling something to the tween segment. But many jobs we do in this field are far removed from the everyday ken of the mass consumer market. For example, selling a particular type of industrial technology to the world’s waste water engineers. Or presenting a series of books on World War I history to a tiny clutch of worldwide war buffs. Each of these examples demands a different approach to reach what “moves” a given market.
Recently, I was contacted by a dancing school owner who wanted her website redesigned to reflect her personality. She felt that if I were to visit her and watch her work, I could capture the essence of her spirit and come up with graphics to match.
This is a common misconception among people outside of the marketing field. They all believe they are truly unique and possess some kind of special quality that will make them an overnight sensation. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Working to package a marketing concept involves use of a finite assortment of type styles, textual content, colors, visual images, shapes and sizes dictated by the dimensions of the end product we are creating and has very little bearing on whether the client is a glamour queen or military madman. If what we are selling is related to those last two descriptions, then there may be some reason to apply such ideas. But in my thirty-five years of experience, graphic design is most effective when it relates to current aesthetic trends but surpasses the norm with innovation and surprise. It must be competitive with the world’s best efforts while being meaningful to its target market.
What type styles work best?
This is very much dependent on whom we are addressing. Just as tweens would have no appreciation for the grace and elegance of a classic font used tastefully in proper balance with its surrounding elements, an older market may bristle at an avant garde utilization of some brazen typeface scrawled defiantly across a bold design. Yet, there is a time and place for each of these techniques.
What colors work best?
According to multiple studies performed over a fifty year period in a number of different countries, regardless of age or gender, the color blue ranked as the most preferred color to use for a variety of purposes and goals. Second choices were green and purple. Least favorite colors were orange, grey and brown. However, each of the studies mentioned that cultural differences affected color favorites because of emotional relationships attached to color, e.g., associations with mourning, depression, mental illness, terrorism, etc. Other studies also concluded that men and women react to color differently with men being more oblivious to both color and subtlety, while women were more attentive and knowledgeable about both. Furthermore, in studies performed in laboratory settings to examine how color affected behavior, blue was found to have a calming, relaxing effect while red motivated quicker response. When age was more closely examined, the younger the subject the more likely the preference for bright colors such as red or yellow. Also, in the presence of these same bright colors, perceptions and judgments to size or value by all respondents tended to be larger and more favorable than when influenced by blues or greens which elicited more realistic and slower reactions.
What does this mean in terms of graphic design?
Much of what has been found through scientific or psychological study basically appears to be common sense. Young people like hot flashy colors and older people like cooler, more conservative colors. Yet, one truism about color doesn’t quite compute when reviewing the results of the various preference studies. According to color theory, there are three primary colors of red, blue and yellow with the complementary color of each primary color determined by mixing the other two primary colors together. This means that the complementary color of red is green; the complementary color of blue is orange; and the complementary color of yellow is purple. What sticks out like a sore thumb is that most people disliked orange; yet it is the most complementary color to use with everyone’s favorite color, blue.
So, do we throw these conclusions out the window? Hardly. It is a safe bet that if you were to use blue as the color scheme for women with breast cancer, men with a penchant for war and children shopping for shoes, none would be repulsed by the presentation. I think the use of an accent color would be the more sensitive issue and observation of the studies’ results should provide a reliable guide here. Also, not to be overlooked is the fact that there are an infinite number of shades and tones of blue which complicates the matter even further. If the blue you choose leans to the green, it is more likely described as a turquoise, while a blue leaning more to the red could be construed as more of a purple or magenta. These variations alter presumptions about use of secondary or tertiary colors to complement. Another important concern regarding color involves contrast which can affect legibility of text if misused.
What visual images sell best?
Years ago, before the existence of computers, desktop publishing and the Internet, it was common knowledge among this industry’s cognoscenti that babies and dogs were the images to use at the newsstand to capture the hearts of the magazine-buying public. In an extensive Google search, I have failed to support that theory today. Times have changed and with it tastes of our culture. Another mantra from years past was that “sex sells.” Whether we agree with that or not, sex rarely has a place within applications we professional marketers must utilize.
Here’s what one expert, Dick Stolley, the founding managing editor of People magazine, had to say about what cover images sell his magazine best:
“Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. Movies are better than music. Music is better than television. Television is better than sports…and anything is better than politics.” In 1999, he added: “And nothing is better than the celebrity dead,” a fact which has been strongly supported with the best-selling newsstand covers of all time at the death of John Lennon, Princess Diana and recently Michael Jackson.
For those of us selling widgets, however, these guidelines are immaterial. The correct image to use in marketing obviously must relate to what we are selling. This is not to say that we must show a photo or illustration of the subject. Sometimes that is not the best route to take. Instead, we must ask ourselves, what will best communicate to the ideal buyer why he must act immediately to proceed with a purchase of what we are presenting? How we “package” that appeal will be the magic bullet to motivate his response.
Well, that doesn’t give you much direction, does it? Having been in this predicament countless times in my career, this is what I have come to trust as the best way to accomplish this goal. After establishing the chief characteristic of the market based on the relevance of age, gender, occupation, education or location, I make the assumption that everyone wants to be treated as if they are the most desirable customers in the world. So I dress my presentations in the garb of the rich and successful, using sophisticated choices of font, intelligence, color, imagery and layout. I don’t resort to gimmicks or brash design. Rather, I rely on methods which utilize elegance and class.
One of the reasons I do this is because first and foremost, I must please the client. Since he is usually affluent and successful, he immediately can relate to this style. Secondly, typical of human nature, his prospective market, regardless of demographics, wants to identify with the rich and famous and probably will view the presentation as something that type of person would want. So, with his curiosity piqued, the presentation has achieved the first important step in the process. How well you have delivered the message and enticed him to act will determine whether he proceeds with a purchase.
While this methodology may contradict the logic of defining one’s target market if it turns out to be children or street gang members, in my experience the majority of those we are appealing to are people of means (hopefully) so they can afford whatever it is we are selling; of an age mature enough to comprehend and appreciate our proposal; and finally, a member of the American culture with needs and desires shaped by current technology, events and national outlook. With that as a starting point, my forays into marketing have been largely successful for those who have hired me based on the understanding that everyone prefers to go “first class.”
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