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Using Pre-Attentive Processing in Sign Design


Digital media experts estimate that in 2021, the average person sees between 6,000 and 10,000 ads per day. Fifty years ago, the average person saw between 500 to 1600 ads each day. What’s responsible for this change? You’ve probably already guessed: it’s the internet. The majority of the messages and advertisements we see each day are online. But physical advertisements, particularly your signage, are still critical to the success of your brand. We also see hundreds of thousands of physical advertisements each day. So how do you make your sign stand out against all the other images and messages your target audience sees in a day? The answer lies in what scientists call pre-attentive processing. You can use pre-attentive processing in sign design to increase the efficacy of your commercial sign.

What is Pre-Attentive Processing?

Simply put, pre-attentive processing is the conscious experience of processing our visual environment. Our brain does this automatically—it usually takes 200-500 milliseconds to grasp our visual surroundings and process them into a complete “picture” in the spatial memory.

There are four main feature detectors in the brain, which are different neurons that recognize main stimuli. These align with four elements used in visual design: color, form, spatial position, and movement. When we use these elements correctly in design, we organize our signs in a way that attracts attention with little conscious effort on the viewer’s part. The goal is to work with the brain and not against it.

The 4 Elements & How to Use Them

In his book “Information Visualization: Perception for Design,” Colin Ware outlines the four visual design properties mentioned above. We can use these elements to talk about all sorts of designs, but let’s specifically address how you can implement these into best practices for commercial sign designs.

1. Color

HSL Color Wheel via Erin Sowards.

If you’re familiar with design, you’ve probably seen color “measured” in various scales. Common ones include the RGB color model used in digital screens, the CMYK color model used in printing, and the HSL color model, which we’ll use when talking about sign design.


“HSL” stands for hue, saturation, and lightness. You can see the HSL model in the color wheel to the right. Hue defines a design element’s actual color of the rainbow, and saturation refers to how much of the given hue is present in the design element. Lightness is the gradient between black and white which makes this model a cylinder, also seen to the right.

Image via Wikipedia.

Areas with higher contrast tend to attract the most pre-attentive processing time. We can use these three elements to create areas of high contrast in a sign design. Color contrast may not look the same in different settings and for different

audiences. Be sure to consider the time of day when viewers will most likely see your sign, what seasons will your sign endure, and its geographical location. You may also consider color psychology in your design.

2. Form

Color is certainly a great way to draw attention to something. Form, particularly size, is another way to draw the eye. The larger something is, the more prominent it becomes. It also indicates importance in a design.

Let’s use North American Signs as an example. If we wanted to include both our name, logo, and tagline on our sign, it’s unlikely that the tagline would be larger than our actual name and logo. If that were the case, people who drove by our location would become familiar with our tagline of “Our goal is helping you reach yours,” instead of our name. While it’s great for someone to be familiar with our tagline, it’s much more important to brand recognition first to become familiar with our name. So placing our name and logo as the largest elements on our sign is most important when considering form.

Form doesn’t just include size. It also includes items like shape, curvature, collinearity, and the number of design elements. You can use all of these to bring a focal point to your sign design and help grab the attention of passersby.

3. Movement

We all know that movement is an effective method to snag someone’s attention. It’s why we wave when we’re across the room at an event with a lot of other people—to communicate to the other person where we are amongst the others.

While this can be a highly effective method of drawing attention, it can also easily become a distraction from the information or message you’re trying to communicate. We all know how disorienting strobe lights can be. If you choose to use this element, which can be difficult to do successfully with a commercial sign, be sure to strike a balance between movement that catches enough attention without sensory overload.

4. Spatial Positioning

Spatial positioning certainly plays into form, but we’re separating it to emphasize the importance of including depth and balanced space in your sign. Negative space, or the empty space between important design elements, is critical to highlight your business name and logo.

Depth happens in 3D. It is how we perceive two or more design elements relative to each other and relative to ourselves. In the context of a physical sign, depth becomes even more important because you can include literal dimensionality in your sign. For example, a sign the uses channel letters as pictured adds more visual interest. It isn’t flat, but the letters literally stand out from the façade.

Prioritizing Attention

A commercial sign has several goals. One is to communicate the brand and its values. Another main goal is to communicate where the business’s facility is located. Your sign is one of your business’s most critical brand assets and can boost brand recognition. We often learn the locations of different businesses by driving by and viewing their sign.

But we prioritize our processing while driving to keep us safe on the road. We’re watching the road, traffic signals and signs, other drivers, and where we are relative to all of them. A secondary task is observing the buildings, people, and commercial and non-commercial signs along the way.  We often switch between the two quickly and can observe a commercial sign, return to process a piece of primary information, and then process the sign we saw. So the design elements you use need to help your sign catch the attention of drivers passing by.

Unfortunately, research does not point to any tried and true combination of these elements proven to capture a target group’s pre-attentive processing, whether driving or not. You will need to evaluate different designs to determine which is best for your location, brand, target market, and budget. But it’s safe to say that utilizing pre-attentive processing in sign design will help it stand out from the rest!

You can also check out our blog on the top ten elements to consider in your sign design for more ideas on how to help your sign really grab attention!

One Comment

  • Posted January 3, 2022 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Hi there! Thank you very much for talking about how better it is to use the right signage color that corresponds to its intended purpose. I’ve been assigned to print out some directional guidance for our company’s open day next week. I’ll keep this tip in mind so the end result will be satisfactory later.

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