Extraordinary Times Require Extraordinary Design

By Elmwood


Designing for the non-conscious brain.

Elmwood’s chief provocation and strategy officer, Greg Taylor, on how design can impact the non-conscious and drive brand effectiveness, and why 2019 should be the year your brand design is out of the ordinary.


Enlightened brands know they need design to be extraordinary because technology has driven seismic change in consumer behaviour and expectations. Put simply, the pace of change means brands need to stay ahead of consumers if they’re to stay ahead of their competition.

Loyalty is dead. No one owes brands anything.

Many, however, simply don’t understand the importance of being extraordinary – which is probably why, since 1920, the life expectancy of businesses has seen an 80% decline (67 years to just 15), according to the Yale School of Management.


Extraordinary design is meaningful, memorable, and iconic. By iconic, I mean simple and distinctive; design that works in the blink of an eye. Think sport, think tick; think beer, red star, smartphone, or iPhone. Some brands have indeed hardwired consumer memory structures to immediately recognise their simple yet distinctive icons: Nike, Heineken, and Apple being a handful of examples.

This is how ‘first to mind’ wins: by building such distinctive memory structures.

Heineken uses distinctive memory structures to be first to mind. Nike is inextricably connected with sport at the core of its brand. Think smart phone, and you inevitably think of Apple’s iPhone.

It all comes down to how we’re neurologically hard-wired to make decisions. Iconic brand design is effective because it exploits the fact that the brain is lazy and likes to take shortcuts.

One way it does this is to notice ‘difference’ first hence the need for design to be simple and distinctive, remarkable and extraordinary. No one remembers average. Iconic design builds mental availability, and this is what makes it so valuable.

The fact that 95% of decisions are driven by the non-conscious – as noted by Harvard Business School Professor, Gerald Zaltman – has been a known fact within the neuroscience community for some time. Yet brands tend to spend the majority of their budget trying to decipher the 5% of our rational decision-making. This is despite the fact that advances and cost savings in neuroscience, as well as implicit testing methodologies, mean that brands now have the opportunity to shift their focus from designing based on the science of post-rationalisation (referred to in the research world as ‘System 2’) to understanding and designing for the non-conscious power of their brands (termed ‘System 1’).

Brands that tap into System 1 by building distinctive memory structures through the power of iconic, extraordinary design are the ones that non-consciously effect decision making. After all, it’s our System 1 thinking that drives the instantaneous decisions that govern most of our lives.

But what about the design elements that aren’t distinctive – the elements and codes that are useful because they are universally understood – how can we optimise these, too, to support our iconic design?

Sometimes, it’s good to borrow – even steal. In addition to distinctive memory structures, it’s possible to use borrowed memory structures very effectively. For example, medals have become analogous to quality, and hand-drawn typography to authenticity. On their own, they are not enough, but when balanced with distinctive, iconic design they offer reassurance – the ‘ying’, if you like, to the ‘yang’ of distinctive memory structures.

Brand owners like Unilever, Heineken, and Mars Wrigley are starting to think about how they create iconic brand assets that play into our predominantly non-conscious, emotional decision making, leveraging both distinctive and borrowed design codes which nudge us towards choosing their brands over those of their competitors.

For instance, Unilever’s Dirt is Good (DiG) laundry franchise (Persil, OMO, Surf Excel) has recently liberated its distinctive ‘splat’ in off pack communications in order to make it more iconic, whilst introducing a kids-inspired, hand drawn secondary typeface to convey living life to the fullest, enjoying the outdoors, and embracing dirt because it is the mark of life’s experiences. In doing so, they’ve made their distinctive ‘splat’ more iconic.

At Elmwood, we’ve worked with many successful challenger brands to ensure the levers of distinctive and borrowed design work in their favour, with design that can flip a category entirely on its head.

Take Saucy Fish Co., a launch brand which managed to differentiate itself in a category that traditionally had some appalling design codes: wet, white fish lying lifelessly in a white chiller cabinet, like a fish morgue, creating a rather unappetising barrier.

Using the borrowed memory structure of black from confectionery and cooked meats in this white fish morgue environment transformed the design into a surprising, distinctive design asset. This, alongside a ‘tell it as it is’ name, provided the simplicity and reassurance that led Saucy Fish Co to become a £100m, global brand.


People are people. Whether they are consumers of fizzy drinks or buyers of complex business services, the same principles apply, and buying decisions are driven by non-conscious triggers. In B2B, the overriding non-conscious need tends to be trust and confidence, with the main concern being: “Do these guys have my back?”

When LOW asked us to develop their brand identity and make it work across analogue and digital channels, we wanted the brand to trigger emotion whilst simultaneously reassure at a rational level. At the core of LOW’s purpose, or distinctive point of view, are three values: wisdom, vision and experience. Values that say “We’ve got this.” The identity we developed for them is based on three animals that represent these core values at a non-conscious level; an owl, a giraffe and an elephant. Each brand asset is crafted to work across channels, together and on their own, ensuring that the brand’s iconic design is reinforced and anchored wherever it is seen.


These may be extraordinary times, but extraordinary design’s ability to implicitly hardwire brands through unique combinations of distinctive and borrowed memory structures create opportunities to maximise their non-conscious power – and we couldn’t be any more explicit than that.