I was recently in Jamaica with my small family, and we’d moved beyond the familiar tourist areas and into the more rural countryside of the tropical paradise. As is typical when traveling with small children, their base needs have an oversized (and often disruptive) influence on any perfectly planned agenda.
Par for the course, I suddenly found myself in very unfamiliar territory attempting to locate and buy milk for my three-year-old son. We got lucky with a small market on a beautiful hillside vista, but as soon as I walked inside, I was in a world wholly unfamiliar to my U.S.-based consumer navigation skills. I was hyper-aware of everything, using nearly all of my senses to identify where I was and what was around me. I was paying attention to the details of the packs and the signage, absorbing everything at once. My attention was correlated with my final purchase. And then it hit me: I was suddenly the subject of my own curriculum—I was experiencing bottom-up processing. This is the state of mind you want your customers in when engaging with your packaging.
A week later, I’m back in the States doing the same thing. Except, I know where milk is in my local store. And to backtrack a bit further, my commute to the store was equally uneventful. I left my house and found myself in a parking lot—your typical top-down processing event. This is how our brain likes to work: minimal effort, autopilot, conservation of energy. It’s psychology 101. In a common “visual sensory processing” lecture, students learn about the two sensory processing states: top down and bottom up.
Top-down processing is based on expectations, desires, and knowledge. Think about buying milk at your local store. You know where it should be, what it should look like, etc., and your brain “fills in the gaps” on things you don’t actually look at. Consider that you dnot need all the ltetres of wrdos to be in the croerct odrer to raed a snetncee. Top-down processing helps here, but if English was a second language to you, this would be difficult. Your knowledge of English and your expectations of sentence structure fill in the gaps.
Bottom-up processing is when your brain is actively engaging your senses to process the world around you. It is triggered when something disrupts the top-down automation of your typical life. Something stands out or presents an argument that has multiple positive answers; it overrides your brain’s natural autopilot. Bottom-up processing is when we stop and take a look—either in a foreign store or if an accident occurs during your daily commute—you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. This is where we want our customers to be. In a sea of products (the average grocery store has 39,500 products, and the average supercenter has 120,000), we actually see less than 3% of what’s offered.
So, unseen is unsold, but to be seen requires disruption. As distribution and fulfillment are commoditized through outlets like Amazon, Jet, etsy, and whatever tomorrow’s thing is, presenting a design that encourages bottom-up processing is not just advantageous, it’s a necessity. That’s why “disruption” has been a topic of the past 15 packaging conferences I’ve attended.
About now you might be asking yourself, “Self, what can I do to create a disruptive design?” Essentially, you must be willing to intelligently break the rules. This can be done in subtle ways, or with outrageous abandon, but it can’t be noncommittal. So, let me tease you with a few items that you can use to rethink how you can punch top-down processing in the face and leverage bottom-up processing within your designs.
Bottom-up done well
The white paperboard milk carton is as top-down as you can get—but NOT in the cereal aisle. When the California milk consortium that brought us the famous “Got Milk?” campaign decided to expand their influence into products that encourage milk consumption, cereal was a sure bet. In the aisle of big, flat rectangles and gusseted flex bags, the iconic gabletop milk-carton shape becomes a great disruptor while reminding you that you do not, in fact, “Got Milk.”
When your whole planogram is dominated by bright, shiny packaging, heading in the opposite direction can be disruptive. Even though I feel generally impervious in a normal grocery store setting, I found myself stopping recently to take a second look at the Buck Wild chips bag.
The matte-black film and package-dominating logo may be the antithesis of textbook design direction, but the bags definitely draw your attention when you’re scanning the chip aisle. And they automatically feel a little more premium. It was just what was needed to drop-kick top-down processing and throw a little bottom-up in your face.
One of the best ways to force bottom-up processing is to construct a visual question: What are you seeing? And to ensure a bottom-up response, make that question impossible to answer. Amor wine’s label and secondary packaging offer shoppers two images simultaneously: the classic Mexican sugar skull and a happy couple enjoying a bottle of wine (or an example of “reversible figure/ground” in Human Factors speak). This visual disconnect is classic—a true disruptor that forces the viewer to consider the two options. The longer someone is entranced by your packaging graphics, the more likely they’ll be to give it a try. And this design glows in the dark. After the zombie apocalypse, this will be the one bottle of wine customers can immediately identify in the darkened grocery store.
To help you navigate these murky waters (and the impending zombie apocalypse), The Packaging School has created an online course on the Human Factors that impact packaging design. Specifically, we discuss over 60 examples like figure/ground relationships, geometric rules, design hierarchy techniques, and 57 more amazing things. It’ll give you insight into how we use our senses to process the information we are bombarded with every day, and some tips and tricks to turn expectations on their ear. We’ll help you incorporate disruption into your packaging design and encourage the bottom-up processing that will make your product jump off the shelf. Check it out for yourself.
Dr. R. Andrew Hurley is Assistant Professor of Packaging Science, Clemson University, and founder of Package InSight and The Packaging School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org