It is a logo designer’s worst nightmare. That ever-so-clever symbol is released into the wild and it’s interpreted entirely different than intended, often as something to do with sexy-time. There’s a name for that phenomenon. It’s called pareidolia..

In the most simplest terms, pareidolia (pronounced pare-eye-dole-ee-a) can be considered “mental pattern matching.” It’s whenever your brain sees something it doesn’t instantly recognize, goes rummaging through your file folder of known shapes and patterns trying to find a match and attempting to make sense of something that at first blush, it can’t make sense of. When the gray matter finds what it thinks is a match, it spits out the result, and you believe you’re seeing something you recognize. Usually, it all works pretty well and lickety-split. There are times though, when your brain can’t quite figure out what the object is, so it jams a recognized item, or pattern, into the equation and you believe you’re recognizing something that actually isn’t there. It’s almost a bug in your head’s software and results in some often weird stuff happening. It’s why people think they see pictures of Jesus in burnt toast. Faces in mountain ranges on Mars. It’s how many optical illusions work – think the “is this a vase or two faces?” image we’re all familiar with. It’s the basis of The Rorschach (inkblot) test. What’s this got to do with logo design you might ask? Plenty. See, pareidolia is what allows designers to break items into bare-bones components and symbols and still have them recognized. When it goes well, it’s makes for clever logos. When it doesn’t? Uhm..

Not breasts

Let’s look again at the image at the head of this post. Looks like breasts, right? It’s not supposed to. Let’s break it down into its various bits and pieces.
little dude dancingThis is supposed to be a stylized, pictogramish graphic of little guy dancing, his back arched, hands above his head. In this context, and once it’s explained, you’ll probably see just that. And you won’t be able to “unsee” it. Likewise, the graphic on the other side is supposed to be a little lady:
little lady dancingHer hands are above her head too, while her legs are hidden under a full-length skirt. Put ’em together and they’re supposed to make a logo for a Junior Jazz Dancing Class. Like so:
junior jazz dancing class logoTrouble is, that’s not what most people see. They see breasts. The swell of a belly. The hint of a G-string over a shapely hip. The only people who interpreted this logo as having to do with jazz dancing classes where the original designer and the client who signed off on it. They KNEW what it was supposed to be. Nobody else did and mocked the design without mercy. Hell, this example STILL shows up regularly on listicles of “Worst Logo Fails” almost a decade after it first hit the web. It is, pretty safe to say, one of the most infamous logos of all time. Just ask Google:
junior jazz dancing class logo

Is it really a face?

A classic example of pareidolia is the Smiley Face logo. All lightheartedness aside, and perhaps surprisingly, this is actually one of the most ubiquitous symbols of all time – it’s recognition factor estimated to be at about 95%, right up there with the cross, the crescent and the Coca-Cola logo. But let’s take a look at the symbol and ask ourselves, is it really a face?
smiley face breakdownIt certainly doesn’t look like any face that you’ve seen on an actual, live body. And nobody that I know has a perfectly round, yellow head. Yet, the Smiley Face logo is universally accepted as a smiling face by almost everyone that looks at it. Here’s what happens – when the symbol is interpreted by your brain, it quickly scans your file folders of recognizable items and tries to find patterns. This image has two dots. And a ragged arc. The two dots are sorta where eyes should be and positioned side-by-each, just like eyes. That arc kinda looks like a smile. And those things at either end of the arc could be interpreted as dimples. Put all together, the pattern these bits and pieces match the most is a face. Voila – your brain tells you that the Smiley Face logo is just that, a smiling face. Even though it doesn’t actually look like a face at all. The simplicity of the design, and the almost universal recognition factor of what it’s supposed to mean, is the true beauty of this symbol. It also explains why it remains so successful after decades, and why the Smiley Face has been the subject of numerous lawsuits as corporations try to claim it as their own. This is a example of successful pattern matching. Let’s look at a few that aren’t..

It’s a house and a sun. Honest..

Let’s say you were a Brazilian university. Let’s say you have department for “Oriental Studies.” Let’s say you needed a logo for said department. Let’s start with two very common images, symbolic to Asia – a house and a red sun (below, left to right.)
asian house logoYour brain sees the house as just that. Likewise for the sun. But when put together, there’s a high likelihood that it recognizes the amalgamation as something entirely different than what it’s supposed to (yowza!) Lest you think we’re making this up, well, we aren’t. This was a real logo, about ten years ago, for the Instituto de Estudos Orientais at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC). It wasn’t till it was published on the Internet did anybody notice it’s similarity to ahm, things being inserted into nether parts. It was subsequently yanked after the internet flare-up but you’ll still bump into to on “worst logos ever” articles that pop up all the time.

Angle of the dangle..

In the UK, the Office of Government Commerce gets pared down to its acronym, OGC. Makes sense then that their logo would consist of three letters – O, G and C. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing really. Until you turned the logo on its side.
osc logo sidewaysOh my. See, when the logo is horizontal, your brain quickly recognizes the three letters in the logo, and tells you that it reads OGC. When the logo is turned sideways, that’s not a traditional configuration for lettering, so your head software has a little bit of a harder time. Trouble is, the pattern your brain finds first is that of a little guy, doing what he looks like he’s doing. And even though you KNOW it’s supposed to be three letters, your pattern-matching system won’t override what it originally believed the image to be. For all intents and purposes, you can’t unsee a little dude fapping to his heart’s content. Yeah, this is a real logo too, and the design “quirk” wasn’t discovered until well in circulation and then it got featured in national newspapers. Once again, the people who designed these things, as well as the folks who signed off, were hardwired to see exactly what they intended, their pattern-matching systems biased towards a rising sun above a house and a logo made up from 3 letters. The problem is that nobody else saw what they were supposed to.

Pareidolia in the Twitter era..

‘The examples we’ve looked at are classic examples of missteps that occurred largely before the advent of Twitter and Facebook (though they DO show up there all the time) and they’re largely frozen in time. Nowadays, when logos are released into the wild, they very quickly spread through social media, where they’re able to be seen by a whole bunch of eyes. And subject to a whole bunch of potential interpretations as to what the logo looks like. A recent example was the Russian 2018 FIFA World Cup logo, released last fall..
russia 2018 world cup logo parodiesIt’s not a terrible design (in fact, it’s one of the better FIFA World Cup logos) but it was interpreted as many different things by many different people who saw aliens, Marge Simpson, gas masks and razors (above.) The logo went viral and said lampooning and parodying even reported in the mainstream press. The Russian effort came on the heels of the 2014 Brazil World Cup logo which looked something like this:
brazil 2014 world cup logoWay back in 2010, when the logo was initially unveiled, we were the first to call out the logo for being a facepalm (and caught hell for it.) Fast forward to four years later, tournament time, and the comparison was pretty well fait accompli on the Internet and most sports media reporting the event. Still don’t see it? Maybe this will help:
brazil world cup logo facepalmThat image is riffed from fan-based artwork that parodied a Brazilian supporter’s reaction to their team’s disastrous performance during the semi-final, when they received a shellacking by Germany 7 goals to 1. It also illustrates perfectly what a lot of people saw when they looked at that image for the first time.

It’s Lisa Simpson doing what?!!

Some of you may remember the scorn heaped on the 2012 London Olympics logo when it was first announced to the public back in 2007. In case you don’t, here’s what that effort looked like:
london 2012 olympics logo
While the logo is supposed to be a cubist version of the year 2012, pareidolia kicked in big time with this one. Some thought it looked like Lisa Simpson performing fellatio (actually, a lot of people thought that.) Others saw the word Zion, believing the logo evidence of some sort of global conspiracy (the tin-foil hatters didn’t realize that any configuration of 2012 can be rearranged to say ‘Zion’.) Conversely, others saw a Nazi SS symbol because of course they did. By the time the actual Olympics rolled around, the controversy had mostly died down (the logo turned out to be but a part of a fairly decent branding system) but many of us watching events on the TV chuckled whenever it showed up in a chyron. “Well I’ll be damned. It does look like Lisa Simpson..”

The man in the stetson hat

This is a personal one for me and every time I mention it, people tell me that I’ve “lost my mind” and that “I’m seeing things” (well, yeah, that’s kinda the point. The “seeing things” part, not the “losing my mind” part.) Try as hard as I can not to, whenever I see the ovalish Toyota logo I see a round-faced guy in a stetson cowboy hat. I just can’t help it, even though I know it’s not there. I’m probably the only one that does, so here’s an image that tries to illustrate what my own personal pattern-matching system sees:
toyota logo with hayseedYeah, I’m still on my own here. Moving on..

We dinnit mean it. Honest..

There are times when companies try something edgy with their logo, it backfires, and then they try to blame people seeing things into their logo that aren’t there. Case in point – Dirty Bird Chicken – a fast food outfit in the UK whose logo looks like a penis
dirty bird logoWhen this design made its way into newspapers and went viral on the web, owners of Dirty Bird denied any intentional resemblance to men bits. They basically claimed it was all a bad case of pareidolia – people THOUGHT they were seeing a penis when it was supposed to be an innocent rooster made out of a ‘d’ and a ‘b’. As in Dirty Bird. All fair enough I suppose. Except if you check the designer’s Tumblr portfolio featuring the Dirty Bird branding (scroll down to the third image.) That kinda removes any doubt..

Pattern matching at its best..

The FedEx logo often shows up in “things hidden in logos” anthologies and what-not, and what they’re referring to is the arrow that’s formed between the E and the X. If you’re not aware, here it is:
Fed Ex arrowHere’s the thing though. That arrow isn’t really “hidden” per se. It’s a pattern that some people get, others miss. Once it’s pointed out, it can’t be “unseen.” According to Lindon Leader, the designer of the brand when he was at Landor, this wasn’t a happy accident, but planned all along. The following is an example of something “hidden” in a logo…

Kilroy was here

This is an nifty bit of visual gimmickry, and while the FedEx logo ‘arrow’ may not technically be ‘hidden,’ the designer of the Toblerone logo went to great lengths to tuck a dancing bear into the icon portion of the design. Let’s look at the logo proper.
toblerone logoNot seeing it yet? Let’s zoom in and outline the hidden element:
toblerone bear in logoAnd there he is. The ‘hidden’ bear (in the snows of the Matterhorn mountain) is taken from, and refers to, the official symbol of Bern, the Swiss town in which the confectionery is manufactured. Whether this is supposed to resonate with people on a subliminal level is anyone’s guess, but if I were to guess, this is the logo design version of “Kilroy was here.”

Seeing the unseen

Let’s try this one, the logo for Kentucky Fried Chicken:
kentucky fried chicken logoLook at the logo on the right and imagine a guy – Colonel Sanders I suppose – with a ginormous head sitting atop a little body complete with arms and legs. See it? Now, try and unsee it. Granted, that’s a bit of a lark, but it does illustrate how pareidolia, or pattern matching, can have an effect on the success, or lack thereof, of any logo launch.

Lessons learned

So what have we learned here? Several things really – whenever you’re working on a logo it’s critical that you view it from every angle imaginable, just to see if any hidden objects are lying in wait (personally, I do this routinely as habit, and often get strange looks as I tilt my head to-and-fro, left to right, when viewing artwork on a monitor.) Also, get fresh eyes on your logo. You’re already hardwired and biased to see what your logo is supposed to represent and your brain will “fill in” the patterns as you expect them to be. Other people, without a preconceived notion of what your logo is, or isn’t, will interpret the design as people seeing it for the first time. Better they see the hidden sexy-time metaphors before half of Twitter does. Keep this in mind too – the further away you get graphically from any real objects in your logo – breaking them down into simple shapes and lines – the more open to interpretation they become. Be careful of that, especially if they’re round and or bulbous. Stick figures with round heads are troublesome too. Also, some letter combinations are more problematic than others – any logo with lower case ‘d’ & ‘b’ acronyms are very likely to look like.. well, you know what they’re very likely to look like.
db logosAnd the market for d & b penis logos has already been cornered by a fried chicken outfit in the UK.