Pareidolia is the tendency to see faces in the environment, buildings and objects that surround us even when those things are most certainly not real faces. The phenomenon has been exploited by humanity for millennia in puppetry, masks, cartoons, car design, and other cultural phenomena. It is perhaps well known that many car designers ensure that the front “face” of a vehicle looks positive, happy even, while the rear is more menacing to subconsciously preclude following drivers from dangerously “tailgating” a vehicle.
Other examples of pareidolia that have nothing to do with marketing and road safety are our recognition of a “man in the moon” and the “Face on Mars”, a natural rock formation on The Red Planet that looks superficially like a face. And, of course plenty of moths and caterpillars exploit the ability of their predators to perceived wing and body patterning as a face when they’re about to be eaten!
A UK team has now examined this anthropomorphism and the use of faces in design by looking at more than 2300 images from across the internet. They have carried out the first systematic investigation of product types and face characteristics (size, composition, emotion) that are manifest in this phenomenon. They have thus demonstrated that pareidolia is a compelling and prevalent facet of how we interpret products and is a useful tool for product designers and in marketing.
According to Andrew Wodehouse, Ross Brisco, Ed Broussard, and Alex Duffy in the Department of Design, Manufacture and Engineering Management, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, of the photos they examined the most common instances of pareidolia were those in which a medium-sized product was shown in which part of the product could be interpreted as a face, and that it conveyed a happy emotion. “The effects of culture and self-congruence are identified as important aspects of our interpretation of facial emotion,” the team reports.
They conclude that designers should, if they do not already do so, consider the fundamental geometric elements of products with respect to facial morphology. This should be taken into account whether or not the intention is to exploit the brain’s ability to see faces or not. Obviously, it may not be useful for a mundane safety product to appear to have a smiling face, for instance.
Wodehouse, A., Brisco, R., Broussard, E. and Duffy, A. (2018) ‘Pareidolia: characterising facial anthropomorphism and its implications for product design’, J. Design Research, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp.83–98