Putting Faces First

After eye tracking a photo of the young man below, we saw how compelling a face could be. Within 3/10 of a second, the 33 people in our pilot study focused on his eyes and mouth. They proceeded to go back and look at these features 666 times in the 15-second testing interval. The ‘heat map’ below reveals the trail their eyes made, glowing reddest where they looked most.


This facial bias, which is hard-wired in us, is not lost on product designers. Car makers are familiar with it, knowing that a majority of their customers ‘bond’ to a car’s front end, sealing deals because of emotional attachments made to an automobile’s ‘face.’ Computer folks know it too. The graphic below cites stats from Amazon, the world’s leading bookseller today.


Keen on market domination, Amazon has developed its branding around the face. You can see the impact playing out in a row of gift cards at a CVS (below left). It’s hard for Bed Bath and Beyond and other retailers to compete with Amazon’s smiley logo. It simply grabs our attention in crowded racks because it’s meant to, with Amazon smartly leveraging 3.8 billion years of our evolutionary history. They’re betting that our affinity for faces, which insured our survival over eons, can’t help but ensure theirs.

amazon.pngAlso intent on maintaining its dominance, Amazon uses a version of the smile for its logo too, in its packaging tape (above right), exploiting the science that explains when we see a smile, we unconsciously feel happy. Part of us will feel good, and readily attach and reach out for that cardboard box even before we open it—even if it’s destined for someone else!

And Amazon’s not alone in exploiting our biological heritage, as a glance at other firms’ logos reveals. Here we see that businesses as diverse as crayon manufacturers, food purveyors and radio stations use the same facial feature to snag us.


So the next time you’re creating marketing material, flyers or websites, consider the pattern we’re not only wired to see first, but also feel happiest about.

When Justin Hollander and I were thinking about cover designs for the first edition of our book, Cognitive Architecture (Routledge, 2015), we felt a face had to be on it, even though it was a book meant for architects and planners. “No buildings,” we said, “It has to have a face.”

The cover we ended up with is below (left). We eye tracked it last year, and learned that viewers did indeed look at its faces first, going back to check them out repeatedly. The time to first fixation (TTFF) on the faces was less than a second, and our twenty-four test subjects refocused on them 361 times in a 15-second testing interval. At the end of the day, we conclude, it seems best not to try to fool Mother Nature, but rather work with the plans she’s already laid in place.


Writer: Ann Sussman
Editor: Janice M. Ward

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