While we’re led to believe Apple’s iconic logo is easy to illustrate due to its minimalist design and clean aesthetic, a recent study found that only one student in more than a hundred could draw it without looking at their iPhone.
In a similar experiment, the students were asked to choose the Apple logo from a lineup that included minor variations. Less than half got it correctly.
So what gives? Did these students just have some sort of senior moment or is the Apple logo more complicated than it seems?
According to UCLA professor Alan Castel, who conducted the experiment, humans are great at memorising visual information, it’s just that we don’t have the capacity to record every itty bitty detail.
For instance respondents knew the Apple logo was a grey-coloured fruit, but what they failed to take note was the shape of the bite, what the leaf looked like, or which directions it’s facing.
Castel attributes these results to what psychologists call the availability heuristic: ‘I’ve seen this many times, so I should remember it’.
In their experiments, a total of 109 out of 121 subjects were confident about the Apple logo, seeing as they used the tech giant’s products regularly. It was only after doing the drawing task did they realise it was difficult.
In contrast, there’s also this thing called metacognition: knowing what you don’t know. In a separate experiment, employees were asked where the fire extinguisher was in the office. No one was confident they knew, and it showed. Only 13 of 54 got it right.
“Just like the students with the logo, most of us were seeing these common objects but not noticing them,” Castel said in an interview with Harvard Business Review.
Though important, the fire extinguishers failed to become memorable mostly because the employees never thought they’d use them – unlike a drinking fountain.
What’s more troublesome is that the employees remembered not the location of the nearest fire extinguisher, but the location of where it should be (near the elevator, though it wasn’t there). Castel calls this phenomenon “gist memory”, and it can be seen in the Apple logo tests.
“Many students assumed that if they were drawing a leaf, they should also draw a stem. In my own mind, the bite had teeth marks because no real bite is smooth. So our memories are contaminated by all the knowledge we’ve accumulated,” explained Castel.
“In fact, studies show that older people are more likely to recollect things based on gist. That doesn’t matter so much for logos or even extinguishers, but it could be a problem when the stakes are really high—say, in criminal, medical, and certain business settings.”
Having bad memory though isn’t all bad. Forgetting small details – like the name of a person you’ll never meet again – helps free up space in your brain for more vital information.
“People who are good at selectively remembering can be very efficient; they can home in on what’s critical and forget the rest. People with excellent memories, by contrast, might struggle with interference; they might remember a trivial conversation but not where they left their car keys.”
Castel says that if you want to train your brain to retain memories better failure is a good teacher. After two months, they asked the employees again where the fire extinguisher was, and they all got it correct.
As for the Apple logo, Castel said, “I can draw an Apple logo perfectly now.”