“Variety in unity,” or the magical place between confusion and boredom
“Behavioral economics tells us much about irrational factors in our choices (but rational when considering our evolutionary history), but design in brands plays a unique role, I would argue, by virtue of the universal appeal of what is called by some ‘variety in unity.’
“Since the time of Descartes, several writers have asserted that unity in design (as an extreme example, an array of geometrically identical forms of the same color) is boring, and variety alone (lots of different forms and colors, but not organized) is confusing. To avoid both boredom and confusion, one needs variety in some unifying pattern(s), which as it turns out, subjects in psychological experiments prefer to all variety-no unity or vice versa.
“Recordings of brain waves from scalp electrodes shows that patterns with ‘variety in unity’ elicit a moderate degree of brain activation (as well as preference), whereas unity without variety leads to low activation, and variety without unity leads to very high activation. So, we prefer variety in unity because it leads to the moderate state of arousal that most of us prefer most of the time, avoiding boredom and confusion. Perhaps creators of marketing designs are already aware of this. If they’re not, they should be.”
We seek patterns to survive (i.e., winter follows fall so we must store food; poisonous snakes live near that rock so stay away), and even when we feel secure and safe, patterns are attractive because they are stimulating (music and sudoku). In other words, we look for repetition in a natural world built on repetitions, or fractals—geometric shapes that are repetitious at different sizes. Fractals represent tree growth, shells, and Jackson Pollock’s art—all things of inestimable beauty.
Branding looks to take advantage of repetition. It is the essence of branding—to create a controllable pattern for how a company presents itself—and it plays a role in the creation of a company or product name and logo.
A name can repeat letters—Google, Kellogg and Twitter—or sound, such as through alliteration and assonance: Best Buy, Dunkin’ Donuts, PayPal, LimoLiner, Blackberry. Just be careful not to let pattern enthusiasm trump good sense. I’m thinking of salons in particular, with names like Hairway to Heaven, Snippety Dippedy Bob Do, and Bangs & Bows.
It is easy to find pattern repetition in logos as well, such as the leaf shapes in the Adidas logos, Windows’ wavy panes, or the curved polar regions of the old Pepsi globe. A newer, and very successful, example is the Stop and Shop logo, which also resembles spirals found in nature, and that is a perfect example of—bringing us full circle—a fractal.
Patterns are part and parcel of branding. Our job is to keep them relevant, unique, and interesting.
Charles Butter is emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. He has taught and performed research on brain, behavior, and mental processes at the University of Michigan for thirty-eight years. His research interests include brain mechanisms of visual attention and space perception and brain control of emotional behavior.