New look! Same great taste!
When your husband is a biologist you find yourself participating in unusual activities for a graphic designer. A couple weeks ago I found myself providing moral support by tromping around the forest after dark as part of a citizen science activity led by my better half. I had a headlight strapped to my forehead and I was sweeping my gaze across the leaf-litter looking for the blue-green reflections from the eyes of wolf spiders. I’m proud to report that I was a very successful “citizen scientist” as I located quite a few of the little guys. To use the scientific term, I had developed a search image, by becoming hyper-sensitive to the the minute details that differentiated between the shimmering slug slime and the spider-eye glitter (Happy Halloween!). My brain had learned to look for one very specific thing set of traits, and to ignore anything that didn’t match up.
I observed a similar phenomenon when I worked for a tea company a couple years ago. (No spiders. I promise.) For a variety of reasons the company had decided to switch the format of packaging for its retail products from tins to paper boxes. As with the tins that they were replacing, each grouping of of the boxed teas (herbal, green, black, etc.) had a different visual theme to reflect the rich history and craftsmanship behind the individual lines of product. Some of the lines kept graphics that were nearly identical to the labels on the tins that preceded them. Some lines were completely revamped.
When the redesigned boxes finally hit the shelves, tea sales showed mixed results. Some sold quite well, but the line of teas that had the worst turn in sales was one that was completely redesigned. For all of the teas, customers had to look for boxes on the shelves instead of the tins that they were accustomed to. The tea company received calls asking why stores had stopped carrying customers’ favorite products. The products were still on the shelves, but the customers’ established search images were making them blind to the new packaging. This was very early in my career, and though I could be proud of how handsome the graphics had turned out on these boxes, I learned a lesson. Redesigns happen at a price. No matter how satisfying it might be to completely overhaul the aesthetics of a product it might not be worth the blow to customer recognition. Having an established search image can help a scientist or a tea lover quickly find what they are looking for, but it can also blind them to anything that doesn’t match up.
In the field of technical communication, the concept of ambient design is related to the effects of a search image. Salvo and Rosinski explain that, “effective ambient design helps users understand the purpose or content of a [document] with a quick glance.” (p. 120) Users create an entire mental library of meanings tied to visual cues. When looking at the magazine shelf in a store, a reader can quickly deduce the kind of content she would expect from Seventeen Magazine and how it might differ from Vogue. She doesn’t need to read the headlines on the front cover to know this. She makes her conclusions based on the magazine’s use of colors, typefaces, photography, and white space. If her favorite feature is always in the first twelve pages with a blue headline, she might flip directly to that page without critically observing the pages before or after. It would be a mistake for an editor to move that feature to the back of the magazine and use red headline, because the reader is already cued in to the ambient design with a pre-established search image.
These are the powerful forces behind a brand. A company or product establishes a set of cues that get filed away in the mental library of the consumer. Companies will go to great lengths to establish and protect a brand. For example, last year Cadbury lost a legal fight with Nestle after it attempted to trademark a very specific color purple. In the U.S. many people can name the postal service that deploys brown trucks, or remember the cause behind trendy yellow rubber bracelets that were popular years ago. Coca Cola’s brand is so strong that its name can be easily identified when written in a foreign language as long as it’s in the iconic white script on a red background.
As a technical communicators, designers and consumers we can form opinions around the subtle shifts or dramatic reinventions of our favorite brands. What can we learn from the companies who make big changes gracefully, and others that flop? Is there a right way to tweak a brand without alienating your consumers, or is it always a negative experience for the customer whose pre-established visual language is being re-written?