Design Bias

Last Sunday morning, I was watching a Formula 1 race on TV w/Andrew. It was the first race to be held at night and immediately, I make one aesthetic observation: The contour of the steel and chained-link fence stand impassable as the prison of glaring white lights make the environment appear almost post-industrial. Andrew tells me Singapore is a beautiful city, but I see gray, lifeless, bleak. I’m turned off. I don’t usually watch the races and this cold critique certainly became an undesirable invitation to continue.

I prefer the beauty of other countries where the F1 race is held: Spa, Belgium where the track is very hilly; Nuremberg, Germany where the parts of the track are covered in tree canopy; and finally, Monaco where the track spine winds it’s way through the city overlooking the yachts on the Mediterranean. I love the way the cars hug the surface and look like colorful centipedes undulating along the black ribbon of tar. One day I’ll take Andrew…

Bored, I pick up our copy of Universal Principles of Design by Rockport. Flipping through led me straight to the chapters on Attractiveness Bias and Face-ism Ratio. How timely.

Attractiveness Bias is defined as a tendency to see attractive people as more intelligent, competent, moral, and sociable than unattractive people.

Face-ism Ratio is defined as the ratio of face to body in an image that influences the way the person in the image is perceived.

Part 1: Attractiveness Bias
The recent Presidential debate has had many commentaries on the perception of who won. Talking Points Memo (TPM) has posted a blog entry title “So Angry” regarding the facial contortions McCain seems to be exuding through-out the duration of the debate. While I’m not a Chris Matthew’s fan, he has captured the essence of McCain’s contemptuous stance during what should have been a ‘dialog’ and challenging ‘discussion’ with his opponent, Obama.

Do yourself a favor when you click to watch this video: Turn off the sound. Yes, turn it off and just watch the body language of both contenders.

What did you notice? Obama’s body language was open, arms out and hands showing gestures. His head, neck, and shoulders were relaxed and fluid. You could see him actually breathing and showing life in each point he uttered. In several of the networking books I’ve read, they all same the same thing: If you want to be liked instantly and you want to show the person with whom you’re conversing that you’re immersed in their thoughts, mirror their body language. Don’t play monkey see, monkey do, but come as close as you can to reflect their thoughts with the way you hold your body to invite further discussion.

McCain’s body was tense, closed off and showing no hands, his jaw was set and he never made eye contact with Obama. In many cases, his perfunctory smile was just that: calculated and a ruinous response to accounts Obama would make.

Speaking of monkeys… An anonymous genuine monkey scientist responded to TPM’s post by stating:

I study monkey behavior–low ranking monkeys don’t look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.

In Universal Principles of Design, the authors dissect the first presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon (1960). They depict a classic demonstration of the attractiveness bias by outlining the features of both contenders, thanks due in part to the extreme nature of circumstances:

Nixon was ill that day and running a fever. Being dressed in light colored clothes sans makeup, he looked even paler and more sickly emphasized by the contrast of his 5 o’clock shadow. However, Kennedy was well-rehearsed prior to the debate, dressed in dark clothes and wearing makeup. Again, the photos show very similar stance to the Obama/McCain debate: Kennedy shows warmth and graciousness while Nixon shows a self-supporting posture.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “So what does this psycho-analysis of a political debate have to do with design?” Hold on, part 2 and the conclusion is coming.

Part 2: Face-ism Ratio
Face-ism is represented by a graduating range of composite types: Cerebral to sensual. For example:

  • A composite of just a person’s face is defined as high face-ism.
  • A composite of a person’s face, shoulders and top of chest is mid face-ism.
  • A composite of a person’s face, shoulders, chest, waist is low face-ism.

The higher the face-ism, the more cerebral and personality traits like intelligence and ambition are emphasized. The lower the face-ism, the more physical attributes are emphasized like physical attractiveness and sensuality. Gender notwithstanding, individuals are rated more intelligent, dominant, and ambitious in high face-isms.

From a mix of biological and cultural factors, it’s been found that images of men have a significantly higher face-ism ratio than that of women. It’s also been found that when the design objective requires more thoughtful interpretations, high face-ism ratios are commonly used. The opposite is true when more ornamental and detailed interpretations are needed, low face-ism imagery is adapted, regardless of gender.

The attractiveness bias is profound in design context, specially in marketing and advertising. You know that sex sells, but how? By mostly using women from the waist up. While doing research for this article online, I came across a number of ads with women.

It’s interesting how the ad on the left frames adult education as “sexy” with full body pose in scantily clad apparel and the use of the word ‘hot.’ PBS does a decent job of framing their hosts in an approachable, forward thinking manner.

How does forward thinking translate into visual terms? From a psychological measure, when people are facing straight at you, that’s defined as present day and when the person in the photo is facing to the right, it is defined as ‘future.’  Logos can also reflect the status of a company and like portraits, they too can be guilty of facing to the left -the John Deere logo prominently displays the stag leaping to the left even though they claim this new logo will launch the company into the future. Here’s where design bias can be important: When the person -or logo- is facing to the left, it can quietly be defined as backwards thinking or unwilling to release past ‘traditions.’

I came across this duo last week in several renditions. What do you see?

The most popular photo montage is with Obama looking right and McCain looking left. This could be simply the way the designer pieced them together unwittingly, or perhaps it was contrived -speaking to us silently.

Studies also indicate that babies look longer at attractive people irrespective to age, gender, or race. I guess I’m attractive because the baby I met yesterday at a party couldn’t take her eyes off me; I’m also thinking it was probably the dangling Bacchus earrings I was wearing. <wink>

If you’re female and you’ve got a cameo shot of yourself on your collateral: Web, blog, brochure, et al, be sure to match your Face-ism with the content of your brand. Depending on the final use of the portrait, chances are good that you’ll want a smart, yet approachable cameo to invite sales and commissions.

As an artist, I wanted to show my hand in a self-portrait I took long ago (the black and white) and it so happens I used that to lure Andrew in on The photo taken at Christmas in London also shows approachability due to leaning in toward the camera. Although the comp is cropped tighter, I managed to include my hand.

Why is design bias significant to you?
Remember that your collateral is your silent messenger and it can allow your potential customers to make quiet observations that they may not actualize. Review your collateral to ensure you’re making a positive statement. If you’re not sure if your mission conveys appropriate design bias, contact me, I’ll be happy to audit your materials.

Update: HuffPo just released an article about Body Politics. Very interesting.

6 thoughts on “Design Bias

  1. Jeanne Rhea says:

    Well, Lisa, I think it is time you started writing a lot in your spare time. You covered a lot! Interesting.

    Even if I had been for McCain at the beginning, some of his goofy grins totally turned me off and I was always thinking —what is this man hiding? What is he finding to be of smirk value?

    When Obama or Biden smiles, they are open smiles. They are not facial mannerisms that one would think we have to decipher. They are honest and straight forward.

    And since I mentioned Biden, I must mention Palin. Palin’s smile is pretty, but all of that winking, goofy slang and thought process reminds me of a valley girl and a southern ‘red neck’ woman who is so busy trying to make herself likable that she is unable to think and speak clearly at the same time. She knows all the buzz words, but anything that requires contemplation is brushed off with another wink, some more slang and either attacking someone or trying to evade questioning.

    Just my analysis based on smiles….


  2. Jeanne Rhea says:

    Maybe I should not have used that ‘redneck’ woman and left it at southern woman, but southern woman does not cover what I am trying to say. (Many women are southern, but there are certain kinds of southern women.) I hope people can get the gist of this message should they read it.


  3. Madam says:

    Jeanne, as a transplanted “southern woman’ as we both are, you are perfectly right. Speaking of body language, have you ever noticed the legs behind the podiums?? That and the sitting positions can tell so much!


  4. creativegoddess says:

    That makes me wonder… from where do I hail? 😉 In any case, sitting position bear little weight compared to those standing -specially in tandem with arm arrangement.

    One day I’ll write about the position of chairs and desks. Oy! Don’t get me started!


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