Why Good Brand Identity Design Matters – Part 2

How ‘beauty’ works on the human psyche

People often say that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, by which they mean that beauty is purely subjective, and there are no objective criteria by which we can judge it. Despite what the sceptics say, we believe that there are objective notions of what ‘looks good’, and ‘feels right’ in the human mind, across times and cultures, and this determines how brands are built. In this blog post, we explain why.

In part 1, we looked at how across the developed world, practically everyone has curated for themselves a selection of their favourite brands, that help them get through the day. Those cherished labels – be that for a pair of jeans, or type of coffee, or style of furniture, or make of car – that we choose because these brands deliver on our expectations, and help us define who we are. We also saw how we want them sold to us not in plain brown paper bags with nothing more than a descriptive tag, but clothed in a deliberately designed brand identity, with a distinctive brand name, logo and packaging. And that’s because we human beings are natural categorizers and curators, and need to have some visual cues to help us separate and identify the products we like, from those we don’t.

Then we went on to examine the role that ‘looking good’ and ‘feeling right’ play in the way brand identities work. In other words, we need our favourite brands to have identities that not only look good, but also feel right. By which we mean that they need both to be visually appealing – in order to attract our attention – and authentic to the product they represent, in order for us to believe them. Which is to say that they need to faithfully reflect what the product or brand is, in its essence.

But the question is, how do we judge what looks good, and feels right? And here we come to the focus of this post, which is about trying to establish what ‘beauty’ and a sense of ‘what is right’ are, and how they work on the human psyche.

As we said at the end of part 1, people often say that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, by which they mean that there are no objective criteria for what is beautiful. For the sceptics who subscribe to this notion, beauty is a subjective experience. There is no such thing as objective standards of beauty, they say, it’s all a matter of personal taste. But we believe that this viewpoint is fundamentally flawed, because it mistakenly conflates two related but distinct concepts – beauty and aesthetic preference. That people have different aesthetic preferences doesn’t mean there isn’t an absolute standard of beauty that most people could recognize.

Someone might prefer the British artist Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ as a matter of personal taste, but they could never argue it was because Emin’s work is more beautiful. In fact, it’s really ugly, while the Mona Lisa is pretty much universally considered to be beautiful, judging by the 10 million people from all over the world who visit it every year.

Someone might prefer the British artist Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ as a matter of personal taste, but they could never argue it was because Emin’s work is more beautiful.

So despite what the sceptics say, we believe that yes – there are indeed common conceptions of what beauty is, and what looks and feels ‘right,’ across cultures and times. And that’s because we human beings perceive and judge beauty by the same mental processes and triggers.

So what are these mental processes and triggers? Well, you’d be surprised. I’ll start by looking at the most important for our understanding of brands, and it’s about psychology.

1. Psychology

Back in our blogpost ‘How do brands work?’ I mentioned how the brand guru Scott Bedbury spotlighted the influence of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (born 428BC) in his understanding of how brands work. In his theory of ‘The Forms’, Plato believed that behind everything we encounter in human life – from abstract concepts like equality or fairness, to human qualities like love or friendship, to physical objects like beds or dogs, there is a universal template or essence of that thing… which he called ‘The Form’.

The Form can be described as the ideal or perfect form of a thing, by which we recognize its individual manifestations. For example, we might encounter various breeds of dogs that might look as totally different as an Alsatian and a Chihuahua, yet we recognize them both as dogs, because we have an innate sense of ‘dogness’ in our minds, which isn’t affected by their differences. Likewise colours like red or blue. There might be many kinds of blues in the world, from sky blue to aquamarine to the faded blue of my favourite Levi’s, but we all recognize them as blue, because we all understand what the essence of ‘blueness’ is.

According to Scott Bedbury, this is what we have to thank Plato for when it comes to branding. The theory that “deep within everything concrete is the idea of that thing”. According to Bedbury therefore, Plato was unknowingly the first person to articulate the importance of a brand’s essence. Making the point that brand owners should always leverage a brand’s essence as the guiding principle of all their branding efforts.

Bedbury is certainly right about that, but I think he didn’t go nearly far enough. Because when it comes to the granularity of how branding works on the human psyche, we can thank Plato for an awful lot more than his idea of essence. Plato wasn’t just trying to identify an object’s essence, or those common qualities by which we recognize a whole category of things. No, he wanted to identify the perfect or ideal form of everything, and to understand how and why we generally have these idealised ideas of these things, in the first place.

His main concern was not mundane objects like beds and tables and trees, but noble things like the ideal form of friendship, or equality, or fairness, or justice. And why? Because he wanted to understand how to be a better person, or build a better society. And above all he considered the ideal ‘Form’ of beauty. Because to Plato, the contemplation of beauty has an improving effect, on people and on society at large. And just as we seem to have templates for equality and justice in our minds, so he believed that we have a template for beauty, that we all inherently recognize. So Plato wanted to identify what all these ‘Forms’ or templates were, and understand where they came from.

Plato’s answer is that our understanding of these templates is innate, and hard wired into our brains. And the source of them is ‘The Good’, which is about as close as he got to the idea of God. He believed that long before we were born, our souls existed and inhabited his idea of heaven, where all the Forms exist in a kind of perfect but abstract form. Having become acquainted with the Forms there, so he thought, our knowledge of them remains embedded in our souls. And our growing awareness of them in the physical world is in fact just a recovery of something we already knew, but sort of forgot. Because these ideals are intrinsic to every human being. In short, he believed we are born with an instinctive understanding of what everything should be like, in its perfect form.

This may all sound a bit far-fetched, but here Plato discovered by simple observation what most of the world’s religions generally teach – that the source of all our common ideas about higher things like love, or fairness, or justice, is God. But whether you believe ‘The Forms’ exist and come from outside ourselves or not, I think Plato was right in his observation that as human beings, we tend to idealise absolutely everything, not just noble things like ethics.

We seem to have this compulsion to form fixed ideas of what the ideal form of everything should be like, or look like, in its most perfect incarnation. And it is this instinct which is behind how we build our understanding of brands. We form idealized images of them, based on some abstract conception of what they ‘should’ look like, or behave like. Which is why we become loyal to them, and get offended when they do anything that strays from our ideal conception of them.

And all of this is born out by the discoveries of modern psychology, in particular the idea of ‘Cognitive Schemas’. Cognitive schemas are mental representations or templates we form in our minds, that allow us to organize and understand the vast amount of information we encounter on a daily basis. Schemas act as filters, helping us to make sense of new experiences, categorize information, and form expectations about how things should be.

These schemas can be about various aspects of life, such as people, objects, events, or roles. For example, you may have schemas for things like “spouse”, or “pub.” Then these schemas influence the cognitive biases we form about things. Because they shape our perceptions by highlighting those details that fit our conception of those things, or editing out those that don’t.

Swop ‘schema’ for the word ‘brand’, and we can see exactly how brands work. Brands are ‘schemas’ we build in our imagination, which we edit and shape to represent the most ideal form of those brands we like, through our experiences of them. We emphasize the positive things we like, and downplay the things we don’t. Which is why we highlighted in our blogpost ‘What is the future of branding?’, that brands are shaped not just by brand owners, but by consumers, in their minds.

So to summarise this point, what Plato and the findings of modern psychology help us to see, is that human beings have an instinctive ability to recognize the essence of a thing, and the ideal form it should take. Then we judge the reality of that thing, against the ideal. Which is how we judge what looks good, and feels right, when it comes to practically everything. Including brands.

But there are three more strands at play that reinforce this process in the human mind. And the next strand we’ll look at is biology.

2. Biology

As we pointed out earlier, while aesthetic preferences may vary across people and cultures, basic biology tells us that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. We all tend to see beauty in the same way, and it’s driven by our biology. For the most obvious example, consider the mating game.

Research consistently shows that regardless of our own physical attractiveness, we all tend to view the same people as attractive, or unattractive. For men, female beauty is driven by waist-to-hip ratio, breast size, facial symmetry, eye size, and length of hair. For women, height, muscularity, jaw shape and facial symmetry all factor into male attractiveness.

The obvious explanation for this is rooted in evolutionary biology. For men and women, the features we typically consider beautiful, such as symmetrical faces, indicate good health and genetic fitness, which increases the chances of successful reproduction, and the passing on of healthy genes to the next generation.

But it isn’t just about reproduction. Studies have shown that we generally attribute higher moral qualities and aptitudes to people we consider good-looking. Which is why attractive people find it easier to get jobs.

The same is true when it comes to nature. Judging by the art and photography we hang on our walls, we all tend to find the same kind of landscapes and pictures of nature beautiful.

And that’s because basically we are still Stone Age beings in the way our brains are wired. Our brains evolved to survive in the natural environment, long before the sophisticated cities we live in now existed. In those days we were hunter gatherers, always looking for food, shelter, safety and fertility cues like ripeness. From an evolutionary point of view, beauty in nature takes the form of healthy flora and fauna, and the kind of landscape features that we associate with a higher chance of survival.

As with the mating game, in nature we value symmetry. Trees and leaves and fruit and flowers all grow symmetrically, if they’re healthy. In nature this means they will probably be a source of nutritious food. A misshapen head of wheat may not be safe to eat, which is why we might find its lack of symmetry ‘ugly’.

So our sense of beauty probably evolved from a recognition of the things that helped us survive, or we associate with healthy growth. Which explains not only why we tend to find the same things beautiful, but also why beauty attracts us. Because recognising these signals of health and nutrition triggers good feelings – beauty actually makes us happy. Which brings us to the next strand in how we judge what looks good, and feels right – which is to do with neuroscience, or the science of the brain.

3. Neuroscience

Scientists have long known that human beings tend to process what we find beautiful in the same way, responding to the same visual cues. Researchers have discovered consistent patterns in certain parts of the brain that become more active when people see things that they find beautiful. For example, Semir Zeki, a notable professor of neuroscience, is renowned for his research on how the human brain processes beauty in art and music.

He discovered that the brain has a kind of ‘beauty processing centre’, called the medial orbital frontal cortex. This is what neuroscientists describe as the reward and pleasure centre of the brain. And the way it works is that when we see something aesthetically pleasing, such as a beautiful painting or a breath-taking landscape, our brains release neurotransmitters like dopamine, which are associated with pleasure and reward.

This activation of the brain’s reward systems evokes very strong emotional responses in us, such as awe, or joy, or a sense of tranquillity, as we might feel when we encounter a panoramic view from a mountain top, or a beautiful choral concert. This in turn creates feelings of well-being, lowered stress levels, and enhanced mood.

Our perception of beauty is not solely limited to visual experiences. It can involve multiple senses, including touch, sound, smell, and taste. Neuroscientific studies have shown that when evaluating beauty, different sensory areas of the brain influence each other, to add depth and richness to our aesthetic experiences. Which incidentally is why making branding a multi-sensory experience is so important.

And what is it that our brains respond to? What does the ‘medial orbital frontal cortex’ think is beautiful? Well not surprisingly, our brain gets excited about things related to what we noted above in the previous point – the visual cues and stimuli that we find in nature, such as symmetry, fractal patterns, curves, organized complexity, ornament and proportion.

And with the word ‘proportion’, we come to the fourth and last strand in how we judge what looks good, and feels right. Which is about the mathematical patterns we see consistently throughout the natural world, that have influenced our perception of beauty.

The Golden Ratio, reputed to be first discovered in nature by Pythagoras, has influenced the design of many things over the centuries including Greek temples like the Parthenon, Renaissance art like the Mona Lisa and, it is widely believed, contemporary brand identities like the Apple logo.

4. Mathematics

There could hardly be anything more objective than a mathematical pattern, which is why you wouldn’t think there could be any link between mathematics and something as subjective as art and aesthetics, right? Well wrong, because the universe has thrown up not one but two related mathematical phenomena that demonstrably influence what we regard as aesthetically pleasing. And those two mathematical phenomena are what has come to be known as the Golden Ratio, and the Fibonacci Sequence. Both of them have become central to our conception of ‘proportion’, across cultures, and history.

The Golden Ratio is reputed to have been discovered by the Greek scholar and mathematician Pythagoras, in about 300 BC. Also known as the Golden Mean, Golden Section, or Divine Proportion, it is a ratio between two numbers that equals approximately 1.618, and is widely considered to be the ‘gold standard’ for aesthetic proportion.

It was reputedly used by the Egyptians in the Great Pyramids, the Javanese at Borobodur, and the Greeks in the design of their temples. Significantly Plato considered the Golden Ratio to be the key to the physics of the cosmos. Many Renaissance artists also used it in their paintings and sculptures, one example being Leonardo Da Vinci, who used the Golden Ratio to define all the main proportions of his ‘Mona Lisa’. Perhaps one reason why the painting is considered to be so beautiful.

Related to the Golden Ratio is the Fibonacci Sequence. First discovered in Sanskrit Indian mathematics as far back as 200 BC, it got its name from an Italian mathematician who detailed the formula in a book he wrote in 1202. In the book, the sequence was used to accurately predict the growth pattern of the rabbit population.

The Fibonacci Sequence is a list of numbers that follows an interesting pattern: Starting with 0, each number in the sequence is the sum of the two preceding numbers added together. As the Fibonacci numbers continue, the ratio between the numbers gradually converges with the Golden Ratio, at 1:618. The Golden Ratio is derived by dividing each number of the Fibonacci series by its immediate predecessor.

These numbers aren’t arbitrary. Many things in nature have dimensional properties that adhere to the Fibonacci sequence. For example, it appears in a flower’s petals, a pineapple’s fruitlets, an artichoke’s leaf pattern, and a sunflower’s seed head. On sunflowers for instance, biologists have discovered that this sequence governs the maximum number of seeds the flower head needs, to optimise the sunlight and moisture required for growth and multiplication.

The Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence are still widely used down to this day, in architecture, interiors and graphic design, because it is believed these proportions result in design solutions that are much more pleasing to the eye. And bringing it home to contemporary branding, many consider that some of the world’s most famous brands have used the proportions of the Golden Ratio to shape the design of their brands, including Apple, Pepsi and Twitter. Before Twitter became ‘X’, that is.


So to wrap all the above up, what have we learned? Well hopefully we’ve made the case that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, and there are observable criteria by which it is normally judged. Moreover, from our survey of the influence of psychology, biology, neuroscience and mathematics, we’ve uncovered the mechanisms by which we determine what ‘looks good’ and ‘feels right’ in the human mind.

So the next question is, how can we use these learnings of how the human psyche processes beauty, to inform how we approach the design of a brand identity, and in particular, the logo at its heart? What exactly is a brand identity anyway, and if it needs to be attractive, what qualities does it need to possess in order to be successful? We answer all these questions in our next blog post, ‘Why Good Branding Design Matters, Part 3 – How to do it right’.

Build your brand identity with us: We know how to create a compelling brand identity and design the iterations of it in a consistent way, at every customer touchpoint. With our unrivalled expertise in brand strategy, naming and identity design, and having worked with brand owners across Singapore, SE Asia and the world, we are able to craft inspiring brands and a holistic brand experience, in any market. If anything we have written above in the blogpost strikes a chord, and you need our assistance, do get in touch with us here.