The Impact of Subliminal Messaging within Graphic Design

The idea that humans can be heavily influenced by subliminal messages is not a new one. However, just how much subliminal messaging is used within graphic design is often overlooked.

The idea that humans can be heavily influenced by subliminal messages is not a new one. However, just how much subliminal messaging is used within graphic design is often overlooked. The purpose of this essay is to critically analyse and examine the ways in which graphic design uses subtle cues to get through to the human subconscious. This essay will focus on the different ways in which different areas of graphic design affect humans psychologically, both consciously and subconsciously. This analysis will then come together to look at how all of these parts of graphic design come together, particularly in advertising, to create influencing work, designed to lure consumers in through the use of small prompts and hidden messages.

Subliminal messaging is a concept that has been known in the modern world for a reasonably long time now. The main aim of subliminal messaging is to get a message across to the viewer without them actually noticing the message. Sometimes this message is just a message, other times it is a message that has a call to action and is trying to influence people to do something. This message can be sent through small prompts or cues hidden throughout media, which are barely noticeable unless the viewer is paying extreme attention.

Subliminal messaging is a more effective tool than many people realise, [Weinschenk, 2010] has noted how the unconscious mind tends to act quicker than the conscious one, meaning people often take actions and have preferences, but struggle to understand why they do this. Subliminal messaging has been used in many different forms, but it is mainly used in what most would describe as the mainstream media. Often, it is used in a harmless way, subtle product placement in a Hollywood film perhaps, or a barely distinguishable sound within a song. Sometimes, however, subliminal messaging has been in the light for all the wrong reasons, political campaigns, government media and cigarette advertisements are just a few of the ways in which subliminal messaging can be used in a ‘bad’ way.

I work as a Studio Manager at a large format printer, so I see hundreds of different types of advertising over the course of a month. I would often see these pieces of design and analyse the different ways in which they are trying to appeal to the consumer. Whilst analysing these pieces of work, I found myself asking questions: “Why did the designer use those colours?”, “Why has this company opted for this particular typeface?”, “What’s the reason for this shape?”. These questions kept coming back to me, and eventually led me to look into the idea of subliminal messaging, and how this was being incorporated into graphic design.

The main approach to this essay is one of critical thinking, I want to try and assess and look at subjects from an outside-the-box perspective, and perhaps delve into areas that are quite abstract in their approach. This essay will analyse the individual aspects of graphic design that have a subliminal impact on the brain, such as colour, type, shape and composition. By analysing these I hope to gain a larger knowledge and understanding of the complex ways in which the psyche is affected by these prompts and perhaps look into ways in which these areas affect the brain that has not yet properly been explored. Once investigated and analysed, I will then look at how these pieces of the design are bought together to create work such as advertisements. Advertisements are one of the main areas of graphic design where subliminal messaging is used.

The main goal in advertising is to sell a product; there is often plenty of competition to sell this product, so they need to appeal to the consumer’s inner psyche is more prevalent than ever. In the UK alone in 2019, £29 billion was spent on advertising [Statista, 2020], this amounts to an extreme amount of competition within this sector. Due to this enhanced competition, alternative ways of reaching out to customers are becoming essential, this is where subliminal messaging steps in. I will look into how advertisements use subliminal messaging to appeal to a wide demographic of people, and how the different techniques are used for different products and in a variety of ways and styles.

Overall, the aim of this work is to take a deep investigative dive into the subliminal messaging within graphic design, assessing how it affects the human psyche through sub-conscious signs and semiotics.

The components of messaging within graphic design

Graphic Design is a process of communicating and communicating is a process of negotiation between two parties [Barnard, 2005]. The key idea of any piece of graphic design work is to get something across to someone, yet this communication needs to want to be accepted by both parties, lest it falls on deaf ears. Graphic Designers must research the ideal way to get their communication across to potential clients, this may be in the form of an advertisement, a magazine article or a poster; whatever the medium, the basis is to communicate effectively with the viewer.

Graphic Design can often be broken down into individual elements; colours, shapes, type, and imagery. These elements are all signifiers within the composition, but the signified can adjust according to the context, and the viewer’s own subjective opinion [Barnard, 2005]. Each of which has its own unique use and job within the whole composition. These elements themselves can then be further broken down into smaller facets, for example, we would class ‘typography’ as an element of a composition, with the typographic style being a small facet of the overall element.

These elements of graphic design each have a unique role within the overall composition, they portray a single piece of the larger message. Individually, these elements may not have any meaning at all. For example, a yellow ellipse on its own is just a yellow ellipse; but once it is paired with a piece of type that says, “Enjoy the sunshine today”, its context and message is immediately understood. This is an example of how the human brain uses a subliminal understanding of various elements to group them together to create a larger picture.

Colour

Colour is a main component of graphic design and one that is used in the majority of work. Colour can be used in two ways, one of these is to create a real-world representation, in other words, creating a piece of work with green grass. The more interesting way that colour is used is when it has no initial guidelines or boundaries, this is when colour and specifically the hue of the colour comes into play.

When the first piece of colour print was produced, humans unknowingly began associating colour with meanings and emotions. As culture has progressed and the world has changed, human views and opinions of colours have changed, consciously and more interestingly sub-consciously. Although these colour associations do tend to change from person to person, on the whole, there seems to be quite a common theme amongst most people when it comes to particular feelings or emotions that colour invokes.

Since colour is one of the main aspects of all areas of design, extensive research has taken place in regard to the psychology behind colour and how it affects the human brain. Sherin (2012, p. 79) states:

“Scientists at the University of Rochester found that men were 10 percent to 20 percent more attracted to a woman wearing the colour red than they were to her twin who was dressed in pastels.”

Red is a colour that is often associated with love, a picture of a heart is portrayed in red, roses are red, yet red is also commonly used to describe anger, people often see the ‘red mist’, cartoons depict people turning red when angry. So why is it that one colour represents both love and anger, two feelings at opposite ends of the spectrum to one another?

A colour wheel representing and explaining how colour can mean different things to the human psyche.
Figure. 1

It could be argued that colours in general are often associated with feelings or associations of polar meanings and that each colour houses its own ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feeling [See figure1.]. Blue for example is a colour people tend to relate to when they are feeling sad, “he’s got the blues” being a prime example. But on the other hand, blue within the business is associated with a professional and serious company. That are two different feelings and sub-conscious associations that I have specified, that are completely different in their end meaning, but both stem from the same colour.

Judging from this, it is not unreasonable to categorise colours and their mental impact on the brain into two areas:

• Feelings and emotions associated with general colours
• Colour association within design

Essentially, these areas are interchangeable, although often embedded in such a way in the human psyche through decades of information, that the vast majority use similar associations.

Shapes

Shapes are an essential part of graphic design, and although we do not immediately think of them when looking at a piece of design, they are undoubtedly there. Shapes can come in different forms, there are the shapes we know and understand, squares, circles, triangles etc. but there are also more abstract and free-form shapes that cannot be categorised. The relationship between the human subconscious and shapes is also an area that has been sculpted by the world around us through the use of subliminal prompts and hints.

Shapes featured within designs are by definition signifiers, they are telling the reader something, and for more common shapes such as squares, the signified is understandable across the board. However, when abstract shapes come into play, the signified interpretation can change from person to person. There is an ingrained concept within the human mind that certain shapes resemble a certain feeling.

Geometric shapes such as squares, triangles and angular shapes are often considered modern, whilst more abstract shapes such as ellipses and variations using curved sides are thought of as natural. Shapes can also be pigeon-holed into genders. Consumer packaging is a prime example of this, Gillette for example, offers both men’s and women’s products.

An image of Dove Men's vs Dove Women's shower gel.
Figure. 2

As shown in figure 2, the men’s packages are designed with harsh, geometric shapes, invoking a sense of speed and strength, whilst the women’s designs feature curved, softer shapes to imitate the ‘gentle’ side of femininity [Barnard, 2005]. The usage of something as simple as a shape can have a profound effect on the communication that is created between consumer and designer. It is an interesting concept to debate as to whether it is the designers of the world that have created these stereotypes, or whether the designs are simply following natural human preferences.

Typography

Type within design is often considered the main form of communication between the viewer and the designer. It is a medium of design in itself that can be perceived in a plethora of ways, most of which are subjective to the viewer. The variation within the styles of type is something that has a profound effect on how the wording is first acknowledged, and this initial perception of type is essential in setting the tone for the rest of the composition.

A cursive font with the writing 'I will find you'.
Figure. 3
A scary font with the writing 'I will find you'.
Figure. 4

Our perception of type is heavily influenced by the decorative style of the said type, take for instance figures 1 and 2 above, they both say the same phrase, yet can be interpreted in completely different ways. A possible explanation for this is related to the micro-stylings of the typefaces. Note that figure 1 features decorative swashes that focus on organic, rounded angles and soft, gentle ligatures, these are all characteristics that we associate with kindness due to their association with calmness and nature. On the contrary, figure 2 is comprised of harsh lines, splatters, and jagged edges, all characteristics that through both centuries of evolution and pop culture, are associated with negative concepts such as sharp edges, blood and horror.

Sometimes, typeface styles become so associated with an ideology that they are tainted forever, a prime example of this is the German black letter, which was used throughout the reign of Hitler and the Nazis [Heller, Poynor, 2014].

Images

When using images within graphic design, they are often accompanied by other elements such as type, shapes and colour. More often than not, type is the main accompaniment to an image, as they can be used to accentuate one another’s message. Unlike the other elements mentioned previously, images are extremely subjective, as they can be interpreted in different ways according to the viewer. The composition of an image and the composition of a design that an image sits within are two totally different things, however, both of these elements can affect how the other one is viewed and how the overall tone of the composition is portrayed.

A Pedigree advertisement featuring a man sitting on a rock with a dog
Figure. 5

Sometimes simple changes such as the addition of a subject can create a completely different narrative for the image as you can see in figure 5. It is this small inclusion of elements that has a profound effect on the brain and the way in which we are viewing these images and processing the information.

mages can be separated into two different categories: image/sensation and image/knowledge [Forrester, 2000]. These differences between the images are often quite vast, but sometimes harder to decipher for certain people. Image/sensation will focus on trying to create a feeling for the viewer, whilst image/knowledge will want to communicate a message. This variation between these two images is essential when creating a composition to be used within graphic design. An instruction manual for instance, requires an image that falls into the image/knowledge category much more than it requires one that would be classified as image/sensation.

Photographic images’ tone and meaning are decided by a variety of things: the subject, colour tones, and composition, all of these can then further be broken down into smaller areas of the composition. Each one of these elements within the photograph can have a strong impression on the viewer, facial expressions of subjects can invoke certain feelings, colour palettes can portray a sense of temperature, whilst the composition of a photograph can further induce sensations such as peacefulness, excitement or busyness, depending on the scenario.

Images can often be used within subliminal design to try to sway the opinion of the viewer, for example, there may be an advertisement of a person eating a pizza, the person is smiling. This may seem innocuous, but it is a small prompt to trick the brain into thinking that if they buy this product, they will also become happy.

Subliminal messaging within advertising

All of the previously mentioned elements of design are individually very capable tools of persuading the human mind, however, when they are placed together into a composition, they are worked in a way that enables a subtle harmony between them. These elements must align together to create one corresponding message, it is not in fact, the whole composition of a design that is subliminally activating, it is the smaller previously mentioned elements which each have their own way into our subconscious through the various methods and techniques listed before.

The idea behind subliminal messaging within advertising is to sell a product, this is the end goal for all designers and marketers when they are brainstorming for their designs. Studies show that since the invention of technology such as the internet, American consumers saw over 300 advertisements a day [Fennis, Stroebe, 2010]. This number is even more staggering when taking into account that this does not include forms of sub-conscious advertising such as packaging, labels, logos and general printed products.

The need for superior advertising is growing at such a rate, that companies are having to brainstorm different ways of approaching problems and gaining customers. Techniques such as subliminal messaging are not new, but the way in which they are adopted by companies across the globe is expanding, with the new digital age taking the forefront, and print taking a back seat, the use of subliminal messaging has increased across design. The idea of implementing subliminal messaging within a digital medium is a lot more achievable than printed. Take for example an average person browsing their phone, they are constantly flicking through their social media feeds, taking in information, but not really taking in information.

The scope here to plant small nuggets of information that can be processed by the brain is enormous and is something that companies are now looking to take advantage of. However, due to the high competition and the sheer number of companies vying for market space, subliminal messaging within these industries sometimes has to take place from the very foundations of the company, the branding.

Amazon company logo
Figure. 6

In such a saturated world, companies are having to take drastic steps to work their way into the minds of consumers. Starting from the ground up, some companies have worked subliminal messaging into their logos, so that from the moment they are viewed, they are immediately conveying a hidden message to the viewer. When looking at Amazon’s logo [Figure 6.], we can see that it is a fairly simple logo, based on easy-to-read text with a decorative arrow placed underneath the wording. However, the placement of the logo is what is important; it is placed strategically so that it starts at the ‘a’ and finishes at the ‘z’ of Amazon. This placement is a subtle prompt that informs the viewer that Amazon stock all manner of items from A to Z, whilst the direction of the arrow suggests a forward-thinking company that is going in the right direction. The arrow is not exactly hidden within the logo, but it is the way in which the logo is composed within the layout of the logo that is conveying a message.

Gilette company logo
Figure. 7

Razor brand Gillette’s logo [Figure 7.] has also been designed in an attempt to provide subtle subliminal hints to the viewer. Since this logo is designed to be aimed towards men, it follows plenty of the individual elements of design that were previously mentioned that sway towards a more masculine demographic. The dark blue colour, paired with a bold typeface accentuates the idea of power, but the smaller subliminal pieces are harder to spot, which is what makes them so effective. Note the slant on the dot above the ‘i’, its lower section is at a slight angle, which represents a blade of a razor. This small feature is initially deemed a small design aspect, just to add a bit of character, but its effect touches deeper than first realised, and it is a nod to the idea of individual elements not meaning much, but when paired together they create a larger picture and message.

Whilst many companies opt for subliminal tactics within their logos, the bulk of the messaging comes from their advertising. Eyal and Hoover (2014) consider the idea that the habits humans pick up are behaviours that are done with little to no sub-conscious acknowledgement. If this were to be true, then it is not unreasonable to suggest the concept that advertisements are changing the brains of the viewers and changing the way in which they are thinking. It would make sense that humans are being sculpted in a very discreet way, by the advertisements that we see and hear every day, businesses want to know how to get through to the inner sanctum of the human brain, they want to know how to reach the area where people make their sub-conscious decisions.

By essentially forming habits through advertising, businesses are able to create more targeted advertising that they know will appeal to that habit in the future, thus shaping the consumer’s mind to adjust and be visually attracted to materials, without them even really knowing about it. This is a long-term project, and one that is manifested over a period of time that could range from years to decades, some companies have shaped their whole brand around creating a visual stimulus that catches the viewer’s attention and is instantly recognisable.

When placed in a consumer environment, such as a shop floor, a product’s main job is to catch the eye of the customer and entice the customer to take a closer look. Often this is achieved by creative packaging designs, and the use of colours, imagery and other design elements. Ampuero and Villa (2006) believe that it is often considered that packaging that features bold, serif, upper case type with larger kerning is a premium product, whilst products that feature a more basic typeface such as a sans serif are regarded as a more basic product. These associations can be attributed to a variety of reasons that could stem back many, many years to small childhood influences that were projected onto the brains from a young age. The associations could be attributed to something as small as seeing the Roman typefaces on old films, depicting wealth and prosperity. The kerning between the letters invokes a sense of space, which in turn appeals to the sub-conscious correlation of space and value.

Apple MacBook Air advertisement
Figure. 8

Whilst the statement by Ampuero and Villa does hold some truth, it can be argued that in recent years, less has become more within the advertising industry and the way in which our brains take in designs. Apple is a prime example; its branding has revolutionised how we approach branding and design in several ways. Their use of extremely minimalistic designs as seen in figure 8 is something that was not seen before, specifically the way in which it was achieved through the use of basic typefaces and plenty of white space. Apple has approached branding from a completely opposite approach to what humans would normally associate with being a premium product.

This mixture of branding and advertising over the course of the last two decades has created a tone of voice, not just for Apple as a brand, but for minimalism within advertising. The traits of Apple: simplicity, white space, sleek lines, simple typefaces and the occasional pop of colour, have embedded themselves so much within the minds of the consumer that a person could just see a white picture with one word in the middle, and would most likely assume it is an Apple advertisement. Apple’s decision to revolve its whole branding around simplicity is the epitome of going against the grain, where most of its competitors focus on bright colours and busy graphics, Apple’s decision to use a simple approach actually helps them to stand out against the rest of the pack. Humans are always attracted to things that look different to what they are used to, often there is curiosity, then intrigue, then interest.

By creating their branding and designing their advertising in the way that they have, Apple has essentially broken the mould and tapped into an area of the sub-conscious that houses the above-mentioned feelings, thus creating an extremely memorable product that literally defined a generation of branding and marketing using the colour white and a sans serif typeface.

Whilst companies are always attempting to be at the forefront of people’s minds using a mixture of memorable branding, inviting colour palettes and other design elements, there is another way in which they can achieve this attachment to their consumer base, emotional appeal. In the modern age, the general public is becoming more and more caring according to PEW Research Centre (2019) 68% of people in 26 countries perceived global climate change as a major threat to their nation. Taking this into account, companies are now actively trying to change their brand identities to appeal to larger audiences that want change within the world. This need to connect mentally with the end consumer means that companies are needing to adapt their branding and advertising style to suit a more conscious audience. Gobe [2010] suggests that companies need to make the transition from ‘dictated’ to ‘personal’. This suggestion implies that companies need to move away from just being companies that sell products and try to develop more of a voice with their own personality.

The famous Coca-Cola bottle.
Figure. 9

One of the biggest companies in the world, Coca-Cola is an expert at appealing to the subconscious of the human brain. Since Coca-Cola has been around, it has been working to develop a connection with not just the individual consumers, but the world at large, starting from being supplied to troops during WWII, to being the go-to order for a large number of people in restaurants around the world. The idea of Coca-Cola being universally available throughout the world is indeed what makes it so connected to people, the product has been such a staple of everyone’s lives for as long as they can remember, that is brings upon a feeling that all humans crave, comfort. The troops in North Africa during WWII were probably over the moon to find bottles of Coca-Cola being delivered to them, a drink that they had many ingrained memories of from home. A family abroad in a foreign restaurant may be wary of trying new delicacies and beverages, but what is most likely going to be on the menu?

The ever-dependable Coca-Cola. Since Coca-Cola’s inception, it has kept its branding quite similar, there haven’t been many huge branding redesigns, the logo has stayed true, the colours have never changed, and even the trademark curvy bottle, as shown in figure 9 has stayed the same. All these factors help to cement the brand in people’s heads as something that is dependable, it’s instantly recognisable and people, therefore, associate that with fond memories and familiar surroundings. Everyone knows what Coca-Cola is, they understand it and they know exactly what they are getting. Not only do Coca-Cola use their consistent branding and visual language to invoke a sense of familiarity, they also appeal to the more emotional side of the human psyche with its advertising.


The Coca-Cola Christmas advert was first aired in 1995 and has since been aired every year over the festive period, this has become a custom in many people’s lives, and a way of knowing that Christmas is approaching. Coca-Cola has essentially created an annual event through advertising, that has become so consistent and recognisable across the globe that it has become almost tradition. Over the course of the Christmas period, many people are often at home with their families relaxing and enjoying themselves, this is the time that they will often see the Christmas advertisement, without even realising, the subconscious is associating Coca-Cola with happy, family times.


Fennis and Stroebe [2010] suggest that focal attention plays a major part in the human brain’s process of collecting information, if the person is hungry, they will subconsciously notice food adverts, if they are looking for a new car, they will notice car advertisements. This type of information processing is called non-focal attention and could be a part of why the Coca-Cola brand has become so renowned across the world. Deep down it is known that humans have a necessity for comfort, and crave things that are familiar to them, such as home, family and love. Since Coca-Cola does such a good job of establishing itself as a dependable, homely brand, it is not unjustified to say that since humans are constantly plying for the previously mentioned feelings, these adverts connect with the psyche more due to their association with those areas of life that most consider most important.

The ethical implications of subliminal messaging within design

Although subliminal messaging is quite an abstract area of design, and one that often isn’t actually thought about that much, there are certain ethical aspects of the subject that could come under scrutiny. In a world that is becoming more and more aware of the way in which their data and information are used, the idea that advertisements and companies may be reaching down a sub-conscious level that the viewer is not aware of may be quite unsettling to some. Whilst subliminal messaging within design has often been looked at as a clever way of reaching out to consumers’ emotional sides, subliminal messaging within advertising can sometimes be thought of as too intrusive.

Chupa Chup banned advert in Australia
Figure. 10

Australia’s ARIA Awards in 2007 came under a lot of scrutiny due to their attempt at subliminal advertising during the show, flashes of the sponsor logos such as the one in figure 10 of the show were inserted at timed intervals that lasted only a fraction of a second. Many people found this way of subliminal messaging too intrusive and resembled more of a trick than a genuine creative attempt to touch people subconsciously.

Whilst some areas of subliminal messaging are quite brash it is easy to see why people find them overly intrusive, others may be affecting our perception of the world around the consumer in a way that many people will not even notice. These areas of design do not tend to be one-off instances of subliminal messaging, rather they are the fundamental design choices made over decades that have in turn influenced the way in which all humans view and take on information. All of the previously mentioned techniques of subliminal messaging create the question — just how much control should designers and marketers have over our subconscious thoughts?

[Weinschenk, 2010] notes that when a consumer makes conscious decisions to buy a product, they go through a series of processes, these processes consist of both conscious and unconscious decision-making factors. Unconscious decision-making factors tend to be influenced by the things we process through our subconscious, or through subliminal messaging. The general theory that design can have a major impact on financial decisions through the use of primitive elements such as colour, type and imagery is in reality a daunting idea. It is an area of design that has never been regulated, thus has been left unchecked for decades, and in turn has slowly manipulated the mass population to think in certain ways about certain colours, certain types of styles and certain images.

It is only recently that boundaries have begun to be broken, there is now a broader range of colours for children’s clothes, boys and girls are not restricted to blue and pink, advertising is becoming more abstract and daring, and people, in general, are now more open-minded and experimental when it comes to accepting information in less conventional ways.

So, how big is the effect of subliminal messaging?

Subliminal messaging’s impact on design is vast, in fact, subliminal messaging’s impact on culture and the human race, in general, is bigger than vast, it is boundless. Through the previous pages, we have established that subliminal messaging is extremely prevalent throughout design; there is evidence of design influencing the human brain through the use of colour, type, images, shapes and many other forms of design. When these elements are merged together, it creates the advertisements and designs that excel at influencing consumers to make calls to action, whether they realise it or not. Subliminal messaging and design have influenced the way we think of brands, it has changed our perception of certain colours, and distorted the way in which we associate forms and shapes with specific genders. These changes have taken place over such a long period, that for many people we now consider these associations and perceptions as normal, the only differences we tend to see are between certain cultures.

The use of subliminal messaging within design to reach the subconscious parts of the human brain, therefore, is not a new one, it has been in existence for decades; whether the designers knew that they were indirectly influencing not just the minds of the current viewers, but the generations to come, is a different story altogether. The designs of the past have indeed created the narrative for what we see before us today, they have, whether knowingly or not changed the way in which we as humans perceive everything around us.

Although subliminal messaging is not considered a new way of interacting with the human brain, its use within the advertising and design sector has often been vastly overlooked. We think of subliminal messaging as something that is used in government programs and far-fetched films, yet it is all around us; it is the colour we paint our walls; it is the choice of a picture we hang on those walls; it is the style of the frame we choose for the said picture, essentially subliminal messaging is all around us, constantly evolving and appealing to our inner psyche, all without us even realising.

Subliminal messaging within design extends far beyond the clever designs within logos or consistent advertisements, it is the fabric of the world around us, warping and twisting to influence our choices through the use of colours, type, images, and shapes and media. Whilst this is not always a bad thing as it helps to create order amongst the chaos of infinite possibilities out there when it comes to design, there is always the question of how much influence is too much influence?

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