* references in bold

The human face is important because facial expressions play a vital role in social communication.  Faces are semiotic, we can read another’s meaning and intent, on both a conscious and non-conscious level.  We are hardwired to prioritise facial features in our field of vision.  This drive is so strong, that real faces and figurative objects resembling faces have the same significance to us.

human faces and emotions from sound symbolism

Our use of the human face has evolved significantly in the last couple of years: the selfie has made it more personable and a conscious performance aspect of self-identity; we have moved from fingerprints to facial recognition in technology biosecurity; large biometric databases are used by police in facial recognition on a Continental level;  technology is enabling digital facsimiles, with dead actors being CGI’d, deepfakes and the creation of virtual faces, like animoji;  social media has made faces an indelible part of scrolling; and Covid-19 has reminded us of how our faces help communication through masking.   Our interaction with our own and other peoples’ faces is changing rapidly, further accelerated by new technologies that are enabling different behaviours.

In addition, a lot of advertising and marketing literature stresses the importance of showing faces The observation of real, figurative, and unintentional facial stimuli is informative. Some questions arise from this: Why are faces so important? How is the use of the human face changing and why?  What are the challenges and opportunities involved in using the human face in communication and design?  These can be explored by examining car design and advertising.

An evolutionary perspective on the face

At 6 weeks old we find faces visually captivating. Furthermore, the face facilitates emotional recognition across six innate emotions: happiness, disgust, fear, sadness, anger, and surprise.  Additionally, how we perceive the ‘gaze’ – perceived direction and attention of the eyes – also communicates social messages about personalities, interests and emotions of other people.


Charles Darwin was amongst the first to link facial expressions with emotions from an evolutionary perspective He identified that these expressions are universal for humans, differentiating them from other visual signs like gestures, which are culturally specific and learned.  A recent study evaluated Darwin’s claim amongst Western and Eastern literate cultures and contrasted these findings to preliterate Papua New Guinea; they were able to verify Darwin’s hypothesis that some emotional expressions are universally recognised.


Faces are also semiotic; we also have the capacity for voluntary facial expressions that communicate non-verbal symbols.  We can learn and create facial expressions that have socio-cultural meaning.  For example, Miley Cyrus ‘created’ the ‘tongue thing’ as a facial expression that has globally become memetic. 


When exposed to different visual stimuli, our brain activity changes. More specifically, seeing a human face stimulates enhanced brain activity when compared to other stimuli.   Additionally, we’re wired for novelty: new faces create more neural excitement than familiar faces.  Our brains have evolved in this way because of the importance of faces in communicating emotional and social messages. 


Additionally, in a previous discussion, we noted that the physiological colour of a face can signal different emotions; red for anger or aggression; white for fear; blue for cold; figuratively, green for envy.



Other ways that faces influence us psychologically

There has been considerable research conducted on how faces influence us, for example:

Advertising: 3 key considerations for using faces in advertising and marketing.

  1. It has been shown that banner advertisements are often overlooked in internet advertising. However, a study discovered that faces with an averted-gaze created increased attention to the banner overall and increased recall of the brand and message.  Participants that were shown a mutual-gaze face demonstrated decreased recall of the brand and its message.  Eye-to-eye contact dominates and detracts from everything else is in the visual field.

2. However, a consideration is that you might not like the face that you see. We all have different perspectives of other people and can be unconsciously influenced by implicit bias. Although, it is recognised that stereotypical portrayals of people are evolving in advertising; which might address some of these barriers.

3. Another key consideration is that we appear to be able to innately understand the difference between real and fake smiles. One of the advantages of using smiles is the concept of ‘emotional contagion’. ‘Emotional contagion happens when an emotion is transferred from a sender to a receiver by the synchronization of emotions from the emitter’.  Advertising or promotions that uses imagery that does not contain genuine smiles is less effective, resulting in a negative affect on product evaluation. 

The unintentional use of faces: Seeing faces in things

Our brains are wired in such a way that real faces, and figurative objects resembling faces, have the same meaning to us.  This has wide reaching conscious, and unintended consequences, for communications and design.

Have you ever seen a face or shape in a cloud?  This phenomenon is called pareidolia.  is when you perceive a specific, often meaningful image, in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

NASA face on Mars

The perception of faces are different from other visual patterns.   We non-consciously perceive faces through pareidolia without being aware of it.  

To experience pareidolia, take the clothing challenge.  Throw some random clothes, bedding, and towels on the floor a few times and see how many faces are looking back at you. The more you do it, the more faces you see.

Pareidolia laundry challenge

Alternatively, look at floorboards:

Pareidolia in timber

A recent study looking at how we read facial expressions found that despite significant variations in visual features, images of face-pareidolia evoked similar emotional meaning.  In the end, the results indicate that illusory faces and human faces use a similar mechanism to express facial emotions, and that this is not closely tied to specific human facial features.


It has also been suggested that people who are higher on the neuroticism Big Five personality scale or are in a negative mood are more likely to see faces in objects.   This is believed to be a holdover from evolution, where nerves raise your alertness for threats, causing you to see danger where there is none.

The intentional use of pareidolia: The impact of faces on car design

"A striking feature of … objects is that they not only look like faces, they can even convey a sense of personality or social meaning,".

Car design has a long history of evoking and using pareidolia.   With many strong elements of anthropomorphic design in modern car styles.  A study specifically explored the perception of the grill as the mouth and the lights as the eyes.  The grill communicated degrees of friendliness, and specifically slanted lights (eyes) can communicate degrees of aggressiveness.


Perhaps many of the most famous examples are those cars that evoke cute aesthetics.   Movies have been made solely on this connection, ‘Herbie: The Love Bug’ and more recently Pixar’s animated ‘Cars’ film.

Cute Pareidolia in Car design

In a previous article, we explored the changing role of cuteness in culture.  The ethologist Konrad Lorenz first identified and defined the Baby Schema (‘‘Kindchenschema’’) as a set of infantile physical features, such as large, wide-set eyes; round cheeks; and a small chin. Collectively perceived as cute, which motivates caretaking behaviour.  Within cute design, the facial features are simplified to the point that they are barely noticeable.

In more recent times, the opposite of ‘cute and friendly’ faces have become popular.  In automobile design, there has been a switch from friendly to threatening; cute to aggressive.

Jeep Rubicon Design Pareidolia

Some cars are adopting a more aggressive appearance to suggest the dominance of the driver. Which might fit into broader societal fears of crime, where public perceptions exceed reality.  There has been an increase of fear in many western societies since the 1960’s, in particular around protecting our families.  With the key message being, especially to younger generations, that ‘life is dangerous’ and we need protecting.  The resulting market opportunity is a range of car designs that look threatening and ‘protect’ the driver.

Aggressive Pareidolia in car design

The Chrysler PT Cruiser was designed with this insight in mind.   Clotaire Rapaille, stating in an interview that the design insight was, ‘It’s Mad Max. People want to kill me, rape me.” In response, the designer Bryan Nesbitt “bulked up the fenders, giving the car a kind of bulldog stance from the rear.”

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Dodge has a design aesthetic that frequently uses more aggressive and masculine features on its models.  This anti-cute design trend was specifically evident in Dodge Calibre’s slogan: It’s anything but cute.

Dodge Calibre Advertising

Wider design considerations

Our reactions to facial pareidolia can also be non-conscious.  In looking at architectural images, a study found that our emotional response to house designs was influenced by the emotional cues of pareidolia images formed by elements like windows for eyes, door for mouth, etc.  Different images elicited a range of emotional responses from: surprise, fear, happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, or neutrality. 


This has big implications for conscious and unconscious design in any field.  There is always the possibility for unanticipated pareidolia in packaging, advertising, or digital content.

Pareidolia in Logo design

It’s also possible to see pareidolia consciously incorporated into logo design.  Perhaps the most famous example is Amazon.  Their logo communicates several messages at once: the smile of satisfaction; everything from A to Z; and the arrow to the end destination of delivery.

Pareidolia in brand logo design

Or in luxury design and advertising:

Celine Bag - pareidolia in luxury design

Our fascination with faces grabs our attention through design to prompt desired behaviour.

pareidolia in behavourial design

Concluding thoughts

While it seems self-evident that the face is a primary aspect of human interaction, what the face means and how it is used is in a period of rapid change.  We are not only born with the ability to read certain universal emotions from faces, but we also have evolving cultural and social uses for faces in expression, gaze and how we read others, that are learnt. 


It is also easy to find examples where faces are used from a semiotic perspective to communicate different values and meaning.  Looking at the car market, it is easy to see the anthropomorphisation of car design to include more facial features that the driver can identify with.  These are trends that are also bellwethers for changing societal needs and values.


From an advertising perspective, faces do help attract eyeballs but a face with an averted-gaze doesn’t captivate at the cost of the message and branding.  Additionally, commonly used stock photos might do more harm than good, if the smiles aren’t perceived as genuine. There is also evidence in beauty categories that particular types of beauty go with specific products.   There is also the question of the appeal of the face, from personal subjectivity through to implicit-bias, that we might not be conscious off.


While its seems that the old adage of ‘to put a human face to it’ is powerful, the reality is much more nuanced in how the face is read.  The increasing role of technology in transforming our experience of faces; this will be interesting area to follow over the next few years.  Especially with the heralded metaverse offering new opportunities for facial experimentation through avatars and AR potentially changing how and what we see.


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