the perception gap

Last week we presented design proposals for the packaging of a new retail product. While discussing the relative merits of one design concept compared with another, I was asked by the client about the value of intrigue in design solutions. The client was wondering if design effectiveness was enhanced by certain amount of ambiguity in the solution, which sets up a cause to be interested, or curious.

In response, I mentioned the concept of the Perception Gap, an idea that I believe I first heard about from Milton Glaser, (I can’t recall whether it was from his writings or speech). 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 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 big, we ignore it. We don’t have the time or interest to devote to 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-communicated society, remembering any promotional message is huge. (Of course our interest is greater if the message sender is important. A note written in lipstick on a napkin may be very hard to decipher, but 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 too big. At modern8, we often ask Tara, the Office Manager, to come and look at something. She’s typically not involved in the creative efforts and therefore a more neutral gauge of the size of the gap. If she walks away, saying, “What the hell is that?” we figure the gap might be getting a little wide.

It’s a constant battle to propose solutions that are on the cutting edge creatively, where we are pushing the gap to the maximum size allowable, while at the same time meeting the client/project/cost objectives. We must intrigue, but as Charles Eames said, “Design depends largely on constraints.”