The Magical Number

The Magical Number

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication – Part 2 of 3

By Dr. R. Andrew Hurley
Contributing Editor, Packaging World

In 1956, George A. Miller published a very famous psychology paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” In it he posed that working memory has a limit: “seven, plus or minus two chunks.” That’s five to nine “chunks” of information or units of memory input. Think of your phone number. (Well, think of the last phone number you had to memorize. Thanks, Siri!) We further “chunk” the seven unique digits into shorter strings of three and four. This isn’t accidental. It’s psychology.

So, how is this illustrated in packaging design? da Vinci said it best: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The more you can simplify and reduce chunking on your packaging, the more attractive it will be, and ultimately, the longer it will be held in active (working) memory. For instance, your packaging design might include a logo, a brand name, a product name, a picture of the product, a window revealing the product, the serving size, and vital directions. Those seven pieces of information (plus or minus two) will land you in the sweet spot for quick consumption by the consumer in a retail setting. Simple designs are found faster and viewed longer than complex designs.

Consider two lobster bisque packages: one from Gil’s Gourmet and one from Publix. I have nothing against the label for Gil’s Gourmet’s Artichoke and Lobster Bisque, which features two suspicious French lobsters holding fork (a fork, for bisque?) and spoon, in front of 60-ft-tall artichokes. But when I compare the packaging to Publix’s simpler Lobster Bisque, I’m struggling to find what value Gil’s 13 chunks of information bring to the table. Outside of the simple view of the bisque, the brand, and the name of the product, what does the extra gain?

I actually feel horrible to put Gil’s Gourmet under the spotlight, because they are one of the 93% of products on the shelf where the design was not leveraged as a strategic aspect of the packaging.

Consider Mika Kañive’s Frts & Ygrt concept package for a fruit and yogurt product. With approximately three chunks of information, the product is easy to understand, and, by taking out letters in the name, it can still be phonetically pronounced in English and Spanish.

But, even when you apply the rule correctly, you’ll still not stay in working memory indefinitely. The half-life for working memory (the time it takes for the impact of the sensory input to be reduced by half) is just a measly seven seconds for a store of three chunks. What becomes interesting in research of half-life memory is what happens when you’re able to reduce memory chunking to one: The half-life increases to 70 seconds. That’s over one minute of top-of-mind consideration! As your brand becomes more desirable and a staple of the category, consider the idea of one-chunk reduction. When I say Starbucks, Nike, McDonald’s, and Apple, usually just one chunk of info bubbles up from your long-term memory.

In the same vein, long-term memory can be exploited to confuse. It’s not a rock-solid system. Just as easily as we can forget a digit in a phone number, we can quickly mis-associate a brand, product, and/or an offering. Knock-offs and counterfeit products deftly mimic colors, fonts, graphics, and layout of more popular brands to short-circuit your memory and distract you into buying something outside your norm.

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