Mind the Gap

Recently, we presented design proposals for an identity logo project. While discussing the relative merits of one design concept compared with another, the client asked about the value of intrigue in design solutions. They wondered if design effectiveness was enhanced by a certain amount of ambiguity in the solution, which would be cause for interest or curiosity.

In response, we mentioned the concept of the “Perception Gap,” an idea that we first heard about from Milton Glaser. The Perception Gap refers to that period of time between seeing and perceiving. When we are presented with a new and intriguing visual attraction, there is often a short period of time between observing it and understanding it—what it is or what it is for.

That gap of time is important. If the Perception Gap is too wide, we’ll ignore it. We don’t have the time or interest to devote towards understanding it. However, if the gap is just right, the extra mental energy used in understanding the gap has a profound effect—we remember it. In our over-communicating society, remembering any promotional message is huge. Of course, our interest is greater if the message’s sender is important; a note written in lipstick on a napkin may be very hard to decipher, but it’d be well worth the effort.

The Perception Gap is used by designers and artists of all visual mediums to engage, delight, and inform viewers. The trick, of course, is knowing when the gap is just too big. Without a thorough understanding of the client, the target audience, and the brand message, a design solution might miss the opportunity to garner an “ah!” from the viewer. At modern8, we often ask associates not involved in the creative efforts, so we can get a more neutral gauge of the size of the gap, to come and look at a few of our solutions. If they walk away saying, “What the hell was that?”, we figure the gap might be getting a little too wide.

It’s a constant battle to propose solutions that are on the cutting edge of creative and are pushing the gap (and the client) to take the maximum, allowable risk while at the same time meeting the objectives. We’re focused on intrigue, but as Charles Eames said, “Design depends largely on constraints.” It’s a rule of thumb to set the strategic boundaries before we can try a creative solution.