Whether we had a good childhood or a bad childhood, most of us would agree that there was a kind of simplicity to our existence back then. As we get older, life seems to get more and more complicated. Taxes, jobs, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, bosses, car payments, mortgages, deadlines, house repairs, car repairs, insurance, credit cards, checking accounts, work computers, home computers, social networks…..
In childhood, we don’t have to deal with so much, well, stuff. As children, we were easily transfixed by any unduly large object that crossed our paths. Through personal and professional experience, time and time again, I have observed that adults tend to respond the same way, even as our society throws more complicated things at us. Interestingly, we still—often subconsciously—gravitate toward simpler objects and situations. This is true for large objects, and it is true for any big, massive thing. Whether it is a massive thing like the Grand Canyon or a hulking piece of heavy construction equipment, people tend to be transfixed by anything that is exceedingly large in relation to the environment around it.
By understanding and using the same principles that capture children’s attention, we can improve the way we deliver information to anyone, of any age.
John Locke, one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers, is the guy who said all human beings are born with a tabula rasa (blank slate) and what children eventually become is purely determined by their environment.
For a toddler, new styles of toys, dolls, cars, and stuffed animals come and go, but the one learning toy that has remained constant and virtually unchanged in popular culture for more than three hundred years is the ABC block. These blocks were originally developed in seventeenth-century England. They impressed Locke, whose work focused on understanding human development. Locke hailed “dice and play things” as a breakthrough for early literacy, declaring that using these ABC toy blocks was the most enjoyable way to instill an interest in letters. With toy blocks, he argued, children could learn to read “without perceiving it to be anything but a sport.”
When we are children, it’s normal for us to learn in straightforward, structured, Sesame Street–like ways. Whether it’s a TV show or picture books, we learn by looking at big, bold, often-repetitive images that present numbers or problems in a strong, visually simplified way. Counting to ten can take over a minute with a purple Count von Count muppet taunting you from the screen, especially when the single digits take up the entire television. Elementary school math books use practical and obvious examples like an actual giant pie (Block) to illustrate fractions.
Nearly all children’s storybooks and elementary workbooks are designed this way. But we can learn through these techniques throughout our entire lives. (Arguably, part of the nostalgia we feel for childhood and shows like Sesame Street stems from the primal comfort of learning through these simple, obvious methods. We’re profoundly comforted when at least one thing makes instant, apparent sense, and that’s exactly what happens when we’re presented with things we can quickly and easily latch on to.)
Environment has obvious effects on human development and simple, oversized shapes tend to imprint on the developing brains of babies and toddlers. As Haig Kouyoumdjian writes in Psychology Today, the portion of our human brains dedicated to image processing is multiples larger than the small part dedicated to language or word processing. So, in a world of overcomplicated communication large objects can have an even more profound impact on adults trying to learn or take anything in. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, two populations of students were shown text with and without visual displays on the subjects of geography and science. It was shown consistently in both groups that those who studied text with visual displays had a proven higher rate of memory and knowledge acquisition. In short, no matter who we are, imagery just helps us to learn and retain more.
As a society, we make a monumental mistake when we stop delivering information in elementary ways as people grow older. The true revelation of Blocks is that humans of every age really do overwhelmingly prefer to take in information and learn through the same big, bold imagery that we craved as kids. A 1984 article published in Instructional Science showed that visual supplements become more important with more complex information—in other words, the more complicated something is, the more a visual element like a Block provides a needed access point to learning it.
I decided to call Blocks “Blocks” because of the mesmerizing quality a toy block has to a toddler. Any monolithic thing that can be instantly perceived, with any sort of intricacy inside it, demands our attention like a warning label or a stop sign.
Blocks work because at a primal level we find comfort and pleasure in large, uncomplicated objects. As with any children’s elementary school workbook, when sophisticated information is connected to a huge, elephantine image or statement, a remarkable thing also occurs in the adult mind: we’re soothed and comforted by it. Its size, clear form, and instant perceivability communicates to us that, no matter how difficult the information attached to it may be, we can relate it to this immense, oversized, simple thing. In my experience of consulting and giving public talks to students and clients, I can observe from the stage or the front of the classroom slight smiles and looks of contentment once I fire up my slides. This is true even when the slides are dry and boring. I see a look of calm wash over the audience the second I start talking about ideas while being supported by a visual image of any kind. This connection—the oversized monolithic object being a sort of anchor in complex and intricate information—is the key to why and how Blocks work.
“The soul never thinks without a mental picture” — Aristotle.
As you start thinking and communicating like an Iconist, you’ll see that massive, oversized Blocks make any collection of specific or intricate information more readily digestible. Large Blocks give people something they can instantly grab on to. Include with your Block the more complex information you are trying to get across, and people will be compelled not only to stop and look; they will be magnetized and genuinely intrigued. It is a reflexive mechanism of human perception. There is true power in any simple Block that has an intricacy within it or coming right behind it.
Like the letters and images on the simple toy block, detail and intricacy within a simple and accessible form are mesmerizing to us.
The idea that massive things not only attract but can soothe young children is easily observable by the existence of tens of thousands of videos streaming on the internet. These videos have names like “Dumpers and Diggers” and “Mighty Machines” and are extremely simple. They have no effects, music, or narration and are basically just heavy machinery and trucks doing what they are meant to do—moving dirt, digging giant holes, moving scrap, dumping sand, and basically carrying on their industrial tasks, repetitively. What is amazing about these unpolished videos is how they can hold the attention of children for hours . . . and not just children, it turns out. All of us can be immediately hooked and captivated.
As Daymond John, celebrity entrepreneur, investor, and FUBU fashion label founder shared on Shark Tank, “Last year I was walking around the beach in Miami; they were doing construction. They were moving the sand—and I found that I stood there, looking at that construction, for about 3 hours. I was fascinated by it.”
The point is, there is just something transfixing and calming to us all, regardless of age, about a massive thing doing a simple, immediately understood task. Through my work and observation I see time and again that when anything complex facing adults is brought to them and presented up front in a Block, simple, “marqueed” way (communicated in an overly large, banner-like style, like the massive lettered marquee sign above the entrance of any Broadway theatre), the same tranquil mesmerism attracts and relaxes them, and they are able to process and lean in to what is being offered up.
When connected to a Block, anything and everything becomes remarkably easier and pleasing to perceive. As we get older and more distracted in an overbusy world, we need these Blocks to be bigger, brighter, and bolder—and to be delivered with the same intent that we use to attract a baby’s attention. Anyone communicating in any medium must consciously and deliberately lead with a big, bold, simple Block as the first point of contact if they want to be seen.
Yet somewhere along the way we got caught up in the swamp of all that we know, wanting to show the world just how intricate, complex, and profound our thoughts and talents are. This tendency has only served to obscure all that we want others to see. Blocks bring us back to the innate, prewired circuit board we were all born with to distinguish what really matters.
We’ve all heard the old cliché that someone “couldn’t see the forest for the trees.” But the problem is that today, too often, we’re bombarded with so much information that we can’t pick out the individual trees in a forest of messaging. Trees are monolithic and iconic, easy to perceive—entire forests are not. Blocks let us take a breather. They give us something big and solid to grab on to in a sea of white noise.
So if everyone’s looking for a tree in the forest, why not just give them one? If you’re going to be part of the solution to messaging overload, you’ll need to face just how insanely loud your audience’s environment already is.
We live in a climate where your Blocks can serve as mind food for a starving populace. In other words, when there’s a firehose of things jetting at us, we need something big and solid to grab on to even more.
But where should you start? In my book, The Iconist: The Art and Science of Standing Out, we look at examples of successful Blocks in various forms—from the structures around us to the arts to communications.
In reality, Blocks exist everywhere and you are already using them on some level. You just don’t know that you are using them, so you aren’t likely using them effectively or consistently.
Blocks are a way to signal the traffic of like minds toward like minds. They should never be viewed as a method to alter or change who you are but rather as a system to help you determine what should be highlighted as your primary representation of self. When you understand the anatomy of Blocks in your particular field, you will be able to craft simple, visible Blocks that represent you. Repeat your Block everywhere and you will demand your audience stop, take notice, and latch on.
Jamie Mustard is a strategic multi-media consultant, keynote speaker, and Iconist. His passion is to teach the science and “art of obviousness,” helping professionals, change agents, artists, and businesses confidently and at will make their messages, brands and ideas stand out to their desired audiences. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Jamie’s work is an explanation of the “economics of attention,” based on the primal laws of human perception called Blocks.