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Behind the curtain – unpackaging the magic of perceptual design

We don't realise the degree to which our behaviour is conditioned by the environment we inhabit. Some, like magicians and marketeers, do. In a former life, I plied my trade as a perceptual psychologist designing products that capture attention on shelf. As a companion piece to the earlier discussion on how the visual system coordinates action, I talk about applications of this thinking - be that to sell more products in the supermarket, or to change behaviours and habits determined by our everyday surroundings.



I champion an Adventure Neuropsychology approach to inspire and motivate others in the face of adversity and the challenges of life. This draws on escapades I have experienced as well as observing those who prevail in adventurous predicaments to provide insight into the mindset necessary to thrive under stress. As well as a basis in cutting-edge neuroscientific research into how the brain operates in extreme environments to optimise performance.

“Objects closer-to will more strongly activate this urge to act. Objects further away may prompt interest and inspire goals to head towards...The environment can be designed to evoke responses based on the organisation of the visual pathways described...We can combine fundamental visual features in certain ways to maximise action potential."

Release your inner zombie


In a previous life I applied principles based on understanding how the brain and visual system process and act upon the world, to design products and environments that grab consumers’ attention. (I have patents to this effect – incorporated into products that are globally recognised.)


Our behaviour is conditioned by the environment we inhabit. Pavements direct us to walk in a certain direction. Boundaries delineate our property from our neighbours'. Door handles prompt us to pull, or push. These are affordances – properties of objects that prompt us intrinsically to interact in a certain way with our surroundings. The brain activates motor programmes on cue from these affordances, and it makes life (generally) easier to get around.


Whilst this is useful by and large, it’s easy to also fall into habits of thinking, cued by the routine interaction with familiar context. We can’t get away from routine.

You shuffle out of bed, to the shower, clean your teeth, go downstairs. Like Shaun (in ‘of the Dead’ fame), zombie-like, thinking the same thoughts about what the day is to bring. (Unless you are one of those annoyingly cheery ‘morning-people’ full of the joys of spring bounding straight from sleep and attacking the day with gusto!)


It will come as little surprise to know that the habitual nature of our behaviours and thinking are capitalised upon by the establishment and industry to keep us all nicely managed. (Or to sell us things we need and keep the ‘machine’ well-oiled.)


We accept this to a degree. It would be exhausting to be back in the wild foraging for every scrap, searching out any morsel of sustenance and fighting off scavengers just to keep alive!


At the end of the day we still make our own choices, and decide what to buy, or what to do according to our whims and needs. It can be helpful, however, to know how environments can be designed in certain ways to prompt desired behaviours. Changing behaviour is hard enough – how often do you embark on a diet, or exercise regime, or try to save up for that glittering prize, only to falter, lose motivation, find excuses...? I read somewhere once that the ‘best’ way to give up smoking is to move house...Basically the environment that we inhabit has the most significant impact on our behaviours and habits. Without us realising it as we become dependent on it.


In the field of consumer goods, I was a specialist in ‘how to capture attention’.


Attention fluctuates moment-to-moment. It is fickle. Easily distracted. It changes according to distance from objects we are heading towards. At sea, if you lose concentration for an instant and the compass shifts a degree or two, seemingly minor in the scheme of things, over time as you approach port, in fog, you’ve overshot the harbour entrance by a significant margin. Likewise, spotting the object of desire (such as a routine purchase) from down the supermarket aisle, as you head towards it arms outstretched like the monstrous villain in a Scooby Doo episode (or another zombie in Shaun of the Dead – no idea why I keep being drawn back to this image), your attention wavers and before you know it you have veered off towards that sparkly new item in the periphery.


Exploiting this tendency, with knowledge of how the visual system operates, and segments into different specialist functions, my work fused the perceptual with the design element to draw the eye and the hand to pick up that particular product.


The dorsal stream of the visual system is concerned with coordinating action in space, with particular reference to objects in close proximity to ourselves. The ventral stream is involved in discerning features and meaning of objects to allow differentiation between things and inform the action system of any distinctions that could favour a better course to follow.


Objects closer-to will more strongly activate this urge to act. Objects further away may prompt interest and inspire goals to head towards. But the bets are off if something else hoves into view as we get nearer.


The environment can be designed to evoke responses based on the organisation of the visual pathways described. This takes into account distance, movement towards, orientation and layout of scene elements, cues and prompts to activate dorsal coordination of action.


We can combine fundamental visual features in certain ways to maximise action potential. Whilst it may not be possible to engineer the entire surrounding area and its contituent elements to your favour, nevertheless you can design your specific element in such a way as to maximise presence, and where multiple variants are involved, the grouping at a Gestalt (holistic) level. (But don’t expect a grand reveal just now.)


Marketeers and stage magicians seem to have an intuitive grasp of how the attentional system works, as much as anyone. The latter are perhaps more systematically aware of how to manipulate this in a desired direction to astonishing effect! I can strongly recommend Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde's book Sleights of Mind (http://www.sleightsofmind.com/) which unpacks the neuroscience of magic and demonstrates how magicians are way ahead of the curve in this regard.


There is an element of the magic of misdirection in the application of the principles I am talking about to persuade consumers to buy certain products. But we can also use this knowledge to design environments to help people change their behaviour in desired ways, to break old habits. And wearing my Adventure Hat: inspire people to get away from surroundings that reinforce habitual patterns of thought and actions not in their best interests. Out into the wilderness, and a widened scope of attention that maximise possibilities for action.


So no more Shaun of the Dead! Release your inner zombie back into the wild.

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