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Want differentiation? Hunt for contrast.

Let’s start small, elemental even, with something we all see every day: Logos. By nature, these iconic symbols are simple in construction, making them a useful tool to explore the concept of sequence of cognition. Simply put, humans process visual stimuli in a certain order, according to how our brains are wired. Who knows how we developed it, but the evolutionary biologists might say that the process arose from the need to spot predators in the plains. We’ll leave the last word to them.

Regardless of how we got here, there’s a psychology to perception. Brand identity expert Alina Wheeler suggests there’s a sequence our brains always follow:

Shapes first. Then color. Then text.
(AKA, form, content, or verbal language.)

To paraphrase: Visuals are recognized directly. Words must be decoded.

When marketing your product and crafting brand experiences — the need to consider this sequence happens on a daily basis. After all, you are in the differentiation business, aren’t you? Your company’s identity systems work best when they help your offering stand out.

It’s not always possible or practical to differentiate based on one piece alone. Consider for a moment just how many tech companies use basic shapes? Or the color blue? Or the phrase “digital transformation.”

It’s not just the shapes, colors, or words you pick — but the interplay and relationships between them. The entire system. More on this a bit later.

In business, as in design, creating contrast is fundamental.

Differentiation is born from contrast. More than just a basic visual principle, contrast helps you get noticed, creating the space to explain your unique offerings — carving out a chance at bat.


Fields of Play

Contrast can’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it plays out across a range of fields — markets, channels, and environments. These fields are the backdrop against which your visual system of differentiators stand out.

Identifying all of the fields where your organization plays is a first step in creating contrast. Let’s assume you’re already clear on your main field — your competitive market or industry. (To dive deeper on this question, check out Playing to Win by Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley.)

The next step is going granular, thinking of each channel: media, event, environment — where your customers are playing. Resurface your answers to: Where are the customers I’m trying to reach? What channels do they use? Where do they spend their time?

Most organizations will quickly realize they exist within not just one, but a collection of fields, including:

  • Social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and more.
  • Digital / online: banner ads, blog posts, podcasts, etc. What sources?, Hacker Noon,, Open Source Underdogs, etc.
  • Experiential fields: in-person meetups, trade show booths, networking events (AWS re:Invent, All Things Open, KubeCon, etc.)

While not an exhaustive list by any stretch, each of these items represents fields within which contrast occurs. Or doesn’t.

Depending on your audience and industry, you’ll want to choose different approaches to contrast. Remember: shapes, colors, words. When prospects or customers have split seconds to see you, shapes and color will create contrast most readily. But words (the right messages) expand the conversation while in-person —when people have more space to decode the language you’re using.

Evaluate your approach to how you use your visual system according to the sequence of cognition for each of your fields of play. How does your offering stand out at trade shows? On media channels?

Do your prospects and customers notice the contrast?  


You Need a Visual System, Not Just a Logo

B2B tech companies must create contrast across a wider range of fields — and the brand touchpoints within them — than ever before. Having a flexible visual system — not only a logo — is mandatory. The goal — equip your teams with a system of visual levers to dynamically dial up or down according to the communication situation. Whether broadcasting or narrowcasting the message, these levers provide the best chance to contrast and differentiate. Therefore meeting more of your target audiences where they are.

Not thinking about your visual identity system critically — as expressions of who you are and what you offer — it’s limiting.  Sure, the tech is probably great, but with a certain company size, ambition, and market forces — your identity system becomes an even-more critical asset. An asset — a visual system of differentiators — waiting to be activated for your benefit.

While we’re on the topic, another driver of perception is increasingly important: motion. More and more, it’s possible to leverage dynamic brand elements (animation, motion graphics, video, etc.) in everyday communication. We think of these as behaviors — where shape, color, and text behave in ways that further the story you’re sharing.


Levels of Read

When it comes to the third sequence — text — there’s much to consider. Another foundational principle of design is hierarchy, or using scale and position to help your viewers best digest the information ahead. Think of hierarchy as: levels of read. Levels get to the amount and intensity of stimuli which humans can process at any one point. An easy way to think about this is when you’re skimming a site or a magazine. Editorially, headlines stand out, side bars, imagery, the layout, position of text, white space, all visual elements — they’re organized into different levels. Some content is meant to be skimmed — that’s why it’s in a sidebar. Headlines and subheads are bigger than body copy (paragraphs) – so that you can glimpse them on a quick read — in order to orient you to the content below, buried in the body copy.  Aligning the visual hierarchy through levels of read is your best chance to catch an eye word-wise — especially when you know the messages speak to the pain points or world of your audiences.

Length of text matters and rules of thumb apply. Levels of read imply that the bigger the message, the shorter it should be. Continuing that logic, subheads are a bit smaller in scale and longer phrases, and body copy is the paragraph of details — consumed once you’ve built the desire to read it.

Think about the last time you walked through a tech conference or trade show. What was it like to be bombarded with shapes, colors, words, and motion? (Not to mention the sounds and people.)  How does an organization create contrast in such an environment? By adjusting not only your sequence of cognition, but their levels of read as well.

In business, as in design, creating contrast is fundamental

To accomplish the goal of drawing potential leads to your booth — think about the process that begins long before you make eye contact, shake a hand, have a conversation. Contact is first made from at least 30 feet away, when an attendee (hopefully) recognizes your logo, or visual elements as distinct from the competing booths all around you. Perhaps they see and understand a simple, powerful headline of no more than five words. At this distance, your brand must grab them by the throat. Big words. Simple ideas. Distinct visuals.

As your audience nears, you dial up the levels of read to introduce more messages and more design detail to the overall experience. And within arm’s reach, you have their attention and now have the opportunity to create contrast through targeted product copy, software demos, one-pager takeaways, and more.

When you know your fields at play, you can adjust your levels of read accordingly. It’s context-specific contrast.

SEO is one of the most important fields to consider when creating contrast. For better or worse, your company’s fortunes and find-ability often rests in the hands of Google’s search results.

In this instance, of course, we’re dealing solely in the realm of words — third in line behind shape and color when it comes to sequence of cognition. Fortunately it’s all words, so each of us enters into reading mode (aka, decoding mode) when searching. Creating exceptional (and valuable) written content, crafting purposeful meta tags, developing snippet-worthy insights—these are contrast-giving activities of optimization.

Mastering sequence of cognition, fields of play, and levels of read — these are the foundational principles any tech leader can use to create your company’s visual and verbal language — a system of differentiators activated for the benefit of purpose and profit. Knowing your audience and what they expect to see, then highlighting the uniquely own-able elements that you bring to the table — that’s what we’re talking about here.

Back to contrast, it’s not enough to just be different. It’s about relevant contrast — the desirable difference that matters most. 

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