The Nuances of Neurocreativity in Design

Design is often the unsung hero of the big screen. It takes highly skilled creatives to produce unforgettable aesthetics like the flamboyant, theatrical backdrops in Moulin Rouge (2001) or the anxiety-producing special effects in Alien (1979). A whole generation remembers that terrifying scene where the alien offspring explodes from Kane’s chest.  But what if we could control and predict the audience’s response to every scene?

Neurocreativity is empowering film-makers and graphic designers alike to evoke powerful emotional reactions at will. By pulling certain neurological levers, we can shock, sadden or amaze. In todays blog we explore neurocreativity; what it is, how it works and how you can apply it in your design process.

What is neurocreativity?

Neurocreativity uses neuroscience to test reactions during the creative process. With feedback from the brains of test subjects, designs can be refined to target specific emotions.

You might think, can’t we just ask people what they think? Why do we need neuroscience? Well, not really because most of our decision-making is subconscious. Take the picture above for instance, how do you think it makes you feel? Sad, lost, nostalgic? Whatever your conscious decision there is likely a deep routed neurologically trigger that is causing you to respond in that way. When we experience something our brains trigger our emotions long before we have time to think about it. After we react, we rationalise those decisions consciously.  Neuroscience lets us bypass conscious thoughts and tap directly into our emotional drivers.

How does neurocreativity work?

Now, if your a science geek you’re gonna love this bit – wait for it. Here comes the science bit. Neurocreativity measures human response using lab-based research, this includes all kinds of techniques such as biometrics, neurometrics and psychometrics.

Today neuromarketing companies have access to highly specialised tools like fMRI, EEG, galvanic skin response and eye-tracking. With unbiased data at our disposal, creatives can enhance and influence the audience’s experience. We can understand and quantify what is working and what isn’t and exactly what impact we are having on the brain.

How can neurocreativity benefit designers?

While there are endless applications for neuroscience research that we could waffle on about, here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for and the reason, after all, you should care about all the other stuff. So, step away from your latest subject of procrastination and take stock, we might have a solution. Beyond the science, here’s some valuable tips to enhance your design process:

1. Neuroscience can unlock reliable creative feedback

Focus groups and surveys don’t work because people can’t tell you what they don’t know. They don’t have conscious access to their emotional associations. It’s a bit like trying to explain your own gut instincts. No matter how well-meaning someone might be to offer insight,  they can’t explain why they like your design. It just feels right, or wrong. Neurocreativity testing removes the guesswork and measures audience responses at the subconscious level.

2. You can use ‘universal’ emotional triggers to influence everyone

We understand that a persons response is based on their emotional triggers, but everyone has had different experiences. So, how do we know which emotional levers to pull? The John Lewis Christmas brand adverts are a great example of using universal experiences to influence the emotions of a large, diverse audience.

The adverts draw on themes like family, Christmas, adorable animals, love, and loneliness that have a strong emotional pull for most people. When viewers watch the footage their brains form powerful neural associations between their emotional reactions and the John Lewis brand. In neuro-speak: “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

3. It will enable you to test small changes to your designs

Saddington Baynes and NeuroStrata found that the slightest change to a visual – such as orientation, lighting, filters, object colour or backgrounds – significantly affects audience perception.

Neuromarketing companies can help with design optimisation by measuring the impact of subtle design variations. For example, you could test whether replacing a black watch strap with a brown one would have an impact on the audience’s perception of specific attribute phrases like ‘vintage’ or ‘cool’. You can also measure emotional response to each version.

4. You can put audiences at ease with familiarity (or not)

The brain refers to memory and emotional associations to decide how to respond to events. Anything unknown is registered as a potential threat. Then our amygdala gets excited and we feel fear. Even when it comes to making small decisions, like choosing a drink, we find it less stressful to avoid uncertainty (unknown small brands) and just grab something we have tried before (like Coca Cola or Pepsi). I hate to stifle your creative flair, but this is why neurologically speaking it doesn’t pay to be too ‘out there’ with your design concepts.

The obvious exception here would be if you wanted to unsettle your audience (perhaps for a horror movie set). In this case you can really frighten viewers by hinting that some mysterious danger is always waiting for them in the shadows.

5. You’ll be able to plan your creative around a filming sequence

Set design can play a pivotal role in steering audience reactions. A hundred years ago, Soviet filmmakers discovered the Kuleshov effect. They realised that swapping the second shot in a sequence greatly impacted how the audience interpreted the first shot.

In the same way, objects or backdrops you design can lend meaning to shots that they don’t even feature in. One of the most disturbing scenes in We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) is when Ezra Miller’s character, Kevin Khatchadourian, is eating lychee berries. The emotional resonance of this is entirely linked to context: his sister has lost her eye and we believe he is responsible. The berries resemble human eyeballs, suggesting our suspicions are correct and deepening our sense of horror.

Again, Neurocreativity can be used to measure the emotional associations that arise from manipulating objects or visuals in particular scenes. You can then refine the designs to serve specific purposes (such as heightening suspense in a thriller, evoking nostalgia in a romance or foreshadowing a death in a tragedy).

6. Applying neurocreativity will enable you to be more inclusive

The neurodiversity movement has changed the way we think about neurological conditions like ADHD, dyslexia or Autism. In creative industries, many now see the benefits of embracing diversity: neurodivergents often bring unique skills that drive innovation. After all, Stanley Kubrick was autistic and Steven Spielberg had a learning disability.

When working with neurodiverse creatives, be mindful that they may think or behave in ways that you cannot anticipate from your own neurological perspective. Equally, if you are a diverse thinker, it may be helpful to talk to clients or employers so that they can find ways to accommodate your needs and you can get on with producing fantastic work.

Did we tickle your neurons?

Whatever your reason for making it this far, we hope we’ve help give you a shove out of your creative rut, fuelled your curiosity or inspired you to apply neurocreativity to your design process. If you enjoyed this, you might also want to read our blog 5 Ted Talks to Inspire your Graphic Design Career.

Wondering who we are? You can find out more about Artwork Bazaar and the benefits of joining our community of artists in film, TV and live events here.

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