One of the most interesting things about looking for each of the Universal Principles of Design at work in the world around us is that I get to talk to my 5 year old about them, and see how far these “universal” ideas truly extend. The seminal work on Baby Face bias proves that it is one of the principles that is found across all age ranges, cultures, and many mammalian species.1 It extends so clearly across age groups that the example I found in the real world is taken from a popular kids film, Shrek.
The creators of the Shrek franchise understand the power of the Baby Face Bias, as is evident with their character Puss in Boots. The character bounces back and forth between being a Zorro-inspired “Ogre killer” and the helpless, sweet “baby face” which he uses to manipulate the reactions of the other characters. Something in us all immediately softens when Puss in Boots shows the baby face characteristics, making us all feel immediately protective, defensive and eager to help. This is the Baby Face Bias at work.
As designers, we can use the Baby Face Bias in projects where trustworthiness and honesty is key to the success of the message, such as when providing testimonials. When trying to demonstrate authority or expertise (CEOs or doctors), it is best to avoid any of the indicators that trigger the Baby-Face Bias.2 The characteristics are:
- large, round head
- big eyes
- small noses
- high foreheads
- short chins
Incidentally, in court cases where an alleged crime is committed by an individual who exhibits baby-face characteristics, the sentences are typically harsher when a baby-faced individual pleads guilty than for a mature-faced criminal who also pleads guilty to a similar crime. The authors of Universal Principles of Design suggest that the contrast between the expectation of innocence and the conclusion of guilt elicits a more severe reaction then when the expectation of guilt and the final judgment align.
(Design principles are well at work in the world around us. “Baby Face Bias” is the 12th of 125 universal principles of design that I will cover this year.)
1. Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies, in Studies in animal and human behavior by Konrad Lorenz, vol. 2. pp. 115-195. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1971 (originally pub. 1950).
2. Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler, Rockport Publishers, 2010, p. 34-35.