Design for Subtle Observation

I was walking inside the campus. One girl moving in a bicycle got my attention. A strange green triangle symbol on her face. Oh! She might have got it unknowingly. But then how could it be in the shape of a perfect triangle? Somebody had done it deliberately. (Image -Only for representation purpose)

Being curious, stopped her and asked the reason. She had recently joined an organisation called “Green Farm Association” and trying to create a social awareness. Following week, I saw more girls wearing those symbol on their faces. Why did they put those marks on their faces? If they had put it on the forehead, would I have asked them? They put a mark on the place, we least expect and prompted my attention, and the subsequent curiosity. This incident got my thoughts rolling and started questioning the reasons behind this attention? A small element attracts us and makes us enquire.

I came out of the campus, tried to cross the road. Saw a car, waited for it to cross. When I looked at the car, it again struck me.

A few years back when luxury cars started flooding the market, one thing stood out. Daytime running lamp. The first thing you observe in a moving car is this light. From a distance, we could figure out that a certain luxury car is coming. Although, the lamp may be a safety feature, but the design became an attention-grabbing element. Instead of making users to observe the whole product, one notable element stood out and grabbed the user’s attention.

A car has so much aesthetically appealing external elements. Products like Jawbone or NEST have the whole product attractive and many aesthetic elements. You cannot point out any one element like Audi’s Daylight.

Do we need this kind of one notable element, which can remind your brand in a subtle way?

I started further probing. Which is a better place to check other than Apple?

Apple Macbook’s “Light up” apple Logo — There’s no functionality involved. But when the product is in use, other people in the room could see. It was a subtle way of an attention-grabbing element when Apple introduced this concept. When you are in a conference room, people would enquire. As people kept on looking at it, the brand recall has drastically improved.

“Other Non-Users have to see and Lust after the Brand” You show some notable difference in a subtle way, which can be constant among many product varieties. You need to attract them from a distance. We can make the whole product attractive, but one small UNCOMMON element has to stand out to provide “Subtle Branding”. This is called “Design for Subtle Observability?”.

One more example from Apple’s Product Stable. No doubt, Apple’s iPod was a revolutionary product, but the white earphones was a game-changing innovation. Before Apple came along, every other headphone’s cables were black. White or black- colour is not going to affect functionality.

Apple knew that iPods would be staying in pockets when in use and there won’t be any way to grab the attention of other users, unlike Apple light up logo on Macbook. So, it was a stroke of market brilliance introducing white ear buds.

Once you were used to seeing black cords, a white cord grabbed attention. It broke the pattern we are used to. After this, every time you saw a white cord, you unconsciously aware of the Apple Brand. This is one essential element of “Brand Consistency”

I’m on the lookout for some more examples to test the case. Shall add if I come across any more case studies.

Note: There is another meaning for “Design For Observability”. Here any innovation’s benefit has to be externally visible to others. Example — If you are using an iPad to send an email, others see how iPad had helped you, made the tasks easier, got impressed with iPad, then this is called “Design for Observability”. Non-customers can see the difference in you before and after using the product.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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