Pre-attentive Processing: How Is It Effective in Sign Design?

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According to digital media experts, an average person is exposed to between 6,000 and 10,000 ads per day in 2021, a significant increase from 50 years ago when an average person would only see between 500 to 1600 ads each day. The internet is the primary driver of this change, as most of the messages and advertisements we see daily are now online. However, physical advertisements, particularly signage, are still crucial for brand success, as we still see hundreds of thousands of physical advertisements daily.

With so many images and messages competing for our attention, how can you make your sign stand out? The answer lies in pre-attentive processing, a technique used by scientists to increase the effectiveness of business signage. By using pre-attentive processing in sign design, you can capture the viewer's attention and make your message more memorable.

Pre-attentive Processing

Pre-attentive processing refers to the brain's automatic and unconscious process of visually processing the environment. Within 200-500 milliseconds, the brain processes and forms a complete picture of our surroundings in our spatial memory. This processing is facilitated by four feature detectors or neurons that recognize main stimuli, which correspond with four elements in visual design: color, form, spatial position, and movement. By using these elements effectively in sign design, we can organize our signs to capture attention with a minimal conscious effort from the viewer. The objective is to collaborate with the brain rather than work against it to make our signs stand out amidst the countless messages and images seen by our target audience every day.

4 Elements of Custom Business Signage Design

Colin Ware, in his book "Information Visualization: Perception for Design," describes four visual design properties, known as the 4 Elements. While these elements apply to various designs, let's focus on how they can be utilized in commercial sign designs for optimal results.

1. Color

If you have a background in design, you've likely encountered various scales for measuring color. The most common ones include the RGB color model utilized for digital screens and the CMYK color model utilized for printing. In the context of sign design, we'll be focusing on the HSL color model.

HSL represents hue, saturation, and lightness. The HSL model can be viewed in the color wheel to the right. Hue determines the actual color of the design element based on the colors of the rainbow, while saturation indicates the level of the given hue present in the design element. Lightness refers to the gradient between black and white, creating a cylinder model as seen in the image to the right.

In sign design, areas with higher contrast often garner the most pre-attentive processing time. To create such areas, we can leverage three elements: hue, value, and saturation. It's important to note that color contrast may not appear the same in diverse environments and for various audiences. Therefore, it's essential to consider factors like the time of day when your sign will be viewed, the seasons it will endure, and its geographical location. Additionally, incorporating color psychology into your design is worth exploring.

2. Form

The second element we'll discuss. While color is an effective method of capturing attention, form, particularly size, can also be used to draw the eye. The bigger something is, the more noticeable it becomes and conveys a sense of significance in the design.

Form encompasses more than just size. It also contains factors such as shape, curvature, collinearity, and the number of design elements. Utilizing these aspects can help create a focal point in your sign design, increasing its visibility to passersby.

3. Movement

We're all aware that movement is a potent method of capturing someone's attention. It's why we wave across the room at large crowds events to communicate our location to the other person.

However, while movement can be highly effective, it can also become a distraction from the message or information that you're attempting to convey. Strobe lights are a prime example of how excessive movement can be disorienting. If you decide to incorporate this element in your commercial sign, be mindful of striking a balance between movement that's eye-catching and that doesn't lead to sensory overload. Achieving this balance can be challenging but is essential for an effective sign design.

4. Spatial Positioning

Spatial positioning is an integral part of the form, but we'll discuss it separately to highlight the significance of incorporating depth and balanced space in your sign design. Negative space, which refers to the space between critical design elements, is crucial in emphasizing your business name and logo.

Depth perception occurs in 3D, and it's how we perceive the relationship between two or more design elements relative to ourselves. In the context of a physical sign, depth perception becomes even more important because you can incorporate actual dimensionality into your design. For instance, channel letters, as pictured, add more visual interest to your sign by creating a sense of depth. The letters don't lay flat on the facade, but instead stand out, adding a unique visual appeal.


Regrettably, there is no established mix of these elements that research has proven to effectively grasp the pre-attentive processing of a target audience, regardless of whether they are driving or not. It will be necessary to assess various designs to ascertain the most suitable one for your particular location, brand, target audience, and financial resources. Nonetheless, it can be assumed that utilizing pre-attentive processing in sign design will enhance its distinctiveness from others.

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