• Adam Morris

William Lidwell's Scientific Perspective on Logo Design

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Design is everywhere we go, and most of what's appreciated by non-designers is its aesthetics or usefulness. However, psychology plays a role in many design decisions made by professionals, such as the emotional nature of certain shapes and colours and how they can be used to influence viewers. William Lidwell, author of Universal Principles of Design, takes things a step further in his Lynda.com course The Science of Logo Design. In the course, William explains the ARMM Model; the driving force behind some of the world's most recognizable logos. Sure, massive marketing budgets allow the biggest corporations to constantly push their identities. Nevertheless, William Lidwell states the claim that science is significant when it comes to successful logos.

The ARMM Model

As a whole, the gauge in which a successful logo can be assessed is how our brains process logos. Lidwell has broken this sequence of processing logos into the acronym "ARMM" - standing for Attention, Response, Meaning, and Memory. Each part of the sequence is explained below.

A – Attention

In the highly saturated world of design and business competition, an attention-grabbing logo is critical. Without first grabbing one's attention, the proceeding cognitive events will fail to take place. When designing with attention in mind, Lidwell explains it's important to learn what makes our brains pay attention to certain things and not to others.

Evolution plays a significant role in what humans pay attention to. Specifically, survival favoured those who were good at identifying things that promoted good health, while avoiding things that caused sickness, danger, or death. With this in mind, recognizing three kinds of stimuli were pivotal to our ancestors' survival: novel stimuli, supernatural stimuli, and partially obscured stimuli.

Novel Stimuli - New information or resources had the potential to lead to health or sickness, so the human brain evolved to seek all things new. Therefore, anything that differs from the norm or status quo grabs our attention. When designing, avoiding clichés and presenting viewers with something they're not used to is likely to grab attention.

The redesigned American Airlines logo features a simple, abstract shape that's novel to the airline industry.

Supernormal Stimuli - This type of stimuli involves the exaggeration of element(s) that trigger an intrinsic response, hence "supernormal". Having evolved to pay close attention to mating and fertility cues, it's no surprise that v-shaped torsos in men and hourglass figures of women are used heavily in the advertising industry. We pay attention to these body types because they favour reproduction. Bright, contrasting colours also grab our attention, as these colours were prevalent in dangerous insects like snakes and bees.

The Starbucks logo uses an exaggerated hourglass figure, while Shell's logo uses bright, contrasting colours.

Partially Obscured Stimuli - Based on evolution, those that could identify potential threats (such as a snake hiding in the grass) with just bits and pieces of information were more likely to survive and reproduce. "Connecting the dots" within our brain allowed humans to identify potential threats without seeing everything at once. As this hardwiring has been passed through generations, partially obscured stimuli is an effective way to grab attention. When designing a logo, this knowledge can be implemented by obscuring or breaking up the design, forcing the viewer's brain to complete the picture. When a person completes an unfinished design in their head, the pleasure of the "aha" moment becomes attributed to the logo and brand as a whole.

The USA Network and WWF logos break up their elements through the Gestalt Principle of closure.

R – Response

Once the viewer's attention has been caught, triggering the right emotional response is important. It's one thing to grab attention, but it's essential make the viewer feel a certain way. Appealing to emotion is one of the most accurate methods designers and marketers use to trigger a response. Since emotions are universal and have existed throughout evolution, it's no wonder the method works so well. Lidwell notes that the "quick and dirty" assessment we do of our surroundings allows us to filter stimuli into two categories: aggressive-dominant and friendly-submissive. Furthermore, he states that the emotional response triggered by a logo's elements (eg. shapes, colours, and fonts) must be in sync with the emotional nature of the brand.

Aggressive-Dominant Stimuli - Elements associated with aggressive-dominance include sharp, angular shapes like triangles and polygons, thick, vertical lines, and asymmetry. These elements convey dominance, authority, precision, credibility, and professionalism.

The Electronic Arts (EA) and Mitsubishi logos use sharp, angular shapes to exude dominance and precision.

Friendly-Submissive Stimuli - Elements associated with friendly-submissiveness include round, curvy shapes like circles and ovals, thin, horizontal lines and symmetry. These elements convey approachability, friendliness, and unity.

The Toyota and United Way logos use round, curvy shapes to portray unity and friendliness.

M – Meaning

A logo must express and communicate meaning. Using associations that align with brand values is an effective way to not only convey meaning, but cause the viewer to think and analyze the logo and its associations. This portion of the ARMM model is especially significant because unlike attention and response, meaning is derived from a conscious level of processing. The more conscious thought a viewer has when observing a logo, the more connections will be made in their memory, which increases the likelihood of the brand being liked, recognized, and recalled.

William Lidwell uses the term propositional density; defining it as "the amount of information conveyed per unit element in a design", or more simply "how much meaning we are able to pack into a logo with the fewest elements possible". The following defines the components of propositional density:

  • Proposition - A descriptive statement that cannot easily be broken down into simpler statements

  • Surface Propositions - The visible elements of a logo

  • Deep Propositions - The underlying and often hidden meanings of a logo

  • Propositional Density - Deep propositions ÷ surface propositions = propositional density

Obama's "O" logo has several deep propositions (freedom, unity, America, optimism, progress, motion, liberty, sunshine, etc.) and few surface propositions (circle and stripes), earning it high propositional density. Altogether, a logo should be designed that expresses multiple deep meanings with comparatively few elements.

M – Memory

Having successfully utilized the first three cognitive events (attention, response, and meaning), much of the work has been done to make a logo memorable. Similar to the meaning process, memory is triggered at a conscious level. Lidwell explains three techniques that increase the likelihood of a logo becoming memorable: the Von Restorff Effect, Mnemonic Devices, and the Concreteness Effect.

Von Restorff Effect - Different items in a list or set are more likely to be remembered than similar items. It's important to not only be different for the sake of being different, but be interesting as well. GoDaddy's zany logo differs from web industry clichés like cursors, keyboards, or URL fields.

Mnemonic Device - A mnemonic device is a method of organizing information to aid in recall. An example is to use a bridging letter or image to help the viewer remember something. For example, the Chili's logo uses the feature-name mnemonic device, as the image of the chili is a visual cue for "Chili" (and the apostrophe), followed by the letter "s" to complete "Chili's" as a whole. Another type of mnemonic device is first-letter, and can be found in the LG and Adobe logos, as their logos are a depiction of the company name's first letter.

Concreteness Effect - Concrete nouns and images are processed and recalled more quickly and accurately than abstract nouns and images. Examples of concrete nouns include lake, rabbit, desk, and cellphone; these correspond to their familiar, tangible objects. Abstract nouns include quality, attractiveness, assurance, and service. Abstract representations of abstract nouns (through visual imagery) are harder to recall than concrete depictions of familiar, concrete, and tangible nouns and images. To test a logo's concreteness in an effort to enhance memorability, the more words it takes to describe it, the less concrete it is, and therefore less memorable it will be.

Target's logo is very easy to describe and remember, while the London 2012 Olympic Games logo is not so much.

Putting it all together: American Airlines

William Lidwell's Lynda.com course features the redesigned American Airlines logo as a case study. Below is the logo itself and the aspects of it relating to the ARMM model.

Attention - Using such a simple graphic that's yet to be used in the airlines industry, the American Airlines logo grabs attention through its novelty. Its bright, contrasting colours and partially obscured stimuli (missing portions of the plane, "A", and eagle body) also contribute to its attention-seeking quality.

Response - The use of verticality, forward motion, sharp angles and asymmetry help to establish the response of dominance, authority, and action. These directly relate to the values of American Airlines as a whole.

Meaning - The American Airlines logo is propositionally dense as it expresses multiple deep propositions with comparatively few surface propositions. The logo's deep propositions include motion, freedom, dominance, America, flight, confidence, trust, and vision while its surface propositions include the eagle's head and plane's wing.

Memory - To aid in memory, the Von Restorff Effect is leveraged through the logo's uniqueness, while the hint of the "A" uses the first-letter mnemonic device. The wing and the eagle itself are concrete, tangible objects that leverage the concreteness effect.

Scientific reasoning explains some of the world's most interesting phenomenons, but doesn't have to live in the lab. The visual environment that surrounds us can be significantly influenced by science; even a discipline as specific as logo design. With this is mind, design will ultimately remain a subjective matter, but can be backed by science to support a strong rationale. ▲


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