As I was designing a birthday card I stumbled upon a perfect example for a cognitive schema – which I have written about here.

Take a look at this card (with its text removed):

A dark tree card in watercolour

While I like how the tree turned out and the grain of the paper gave the ground a wonderful, rough feel … the card does not look like a birthday card AT ALL. Even with added text:

The text says “happy birthday” in German.

Now looking at the card, the text even made it worse: It looks much more like a “I’m sorry your aunt died”-card. But why is that so?

Our expectations

Our whole life we look at things and decipher what they might mean. Certain colours have specified meanings we are accustomed to. And although these colours might change from culture to culture (such as black or white being used for funerals), colours trigger a set of expectations in our minds.
Additionally, most of us have seen birthday cards and condolence cards before and would be able to put both in each category. The one above? Not so much. It ticks certain boxes in our brains, even though when you closely look at it, it’s just a tree, a handwritten font saying “happy birthday” and some birds. All in all that would not make a birthday or funeral card. In fact, if I told you these characteristics, you might have a completely different card in mind – depending on whether you expect a card for the first or latter purpose.

Design with your audience in mind

While there is nothing wrong with this card, I am not going to give it away as a birthday present. It just looks too funeral-ly for my taste and it might have a negative effect on the person I’m giving it to. But I’m happy to have seen such a strong effect of colour, setup and choice of font in this example and I am looking forward to slightly breaking some design rules – just not as much as in the above example, that just confuses people 🙂

Have a lovely day!