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The Psychology of Shape

R Proffitt
by Richard Proffitt
iopan design

There are three distinctive types of shapes; these are: Geometric, Natural/Organic and Abstract. However, when people talk of ‘Shapes’ they are usually refering to the geometric shapes — and more often than not, to the regular polygons. This article details these three types of shape with meanings and correspondencies. At the end of the article is a suggestion for a “Shape Meanings Game” that you can play by yourself, or within a group.

GEOMETRIC

Circles, squares, triangles, diamonds are made up of regular patterns that are easily recognizable. This regularity suggests organization and efficiency. It suggests structure. Geometric shapes tend to be symmetrical further suggesting order.

NATURAL/ORGANIC

Natural/Organic shapes are irregular. They have more curves and are uneven. They tend to be pleasing and comforting. While they can be man-made, they are more typically representative of shapes found in nature such as a leaves, rocks, and clouds. On a web page organic shapes are generally created through the use of illustration and photography. They are free form and asymmetrical and convey feelings of spontaneity. Organic shapes add interest and reinforce themes.

ABSTRACT

Abstract shapes have a recognizable form, but are not real. They are stylized or simplified versions of organic shapes. A stick figure is an abstract shape depicting a person. Typographic glyphs are abstract shapes to represent letters. Icons are abstract shapes to represent ideas and concepts. Some abstract shapes have near universal recognition. Think of some of the icons you see in the software you use daily.

Positive & Negative

Shapes can be either positive or negative. They can be figure or they can be ground. Be conscious of the shapes you form with negative space as these are just as, if not more, important than the shapes you form with positive space. Negative-space shapes are generally considered more ‘hidden’ or ‘discreat’.

brightly coloured regular polygons
Regular Polygons

When people first think of ‘Shape’ — the regular polygons first spring to mind.

Shape and Emotional & Cognative Response

When it comes to how certain shapes make people ‘feel’ or ‘think’ there is an almost universal human response, with very little variation on the keywords that I've listed below. It would seem then that there is less variation on the human response to shape than there is to colour, which - of course - has many culteral differences, as well as subjective preferences.

Circular shape: Protective / Infinite. Tenderness - Love - Friendship - Care - Support - Affection - Compassion. Also: also, Eternity, Connection, Community, Wholeness, Endurance, Movement, Safety, Perfection, Power, Energy, Integrity, Perfection, Completeness, Home, Restriction. The Circle referes to the Feminine, to Warmth, Comfort, Sensuality and love; to Unity.

Squares, rectangles, pyramids: Stability - Strength - Power - Balance - Reliability. Also: Equality, Efficiency, Solidity, Solidarity, Security, Rationality and Honesty. Can also refer to Conservatism and Restriction.

Triangular shapes: Tension or Conflict. Action or Karma. Also: Energy, Power, Balance, Law, Science & Religion. Triangles refer mainly to the masculine: Strength, Aggression, Dynamic Movement. To Self‚Äźdiscovery, Revelation & Revolution.

Vertical shapes and lines: Strength - Masculinity - Power - Aggression - Courage - Brutality - Dominate - Menacing.

Horizontal lines: Tranquillity - Feminine - Calm - Rest - Weak - Peaceful - Composed - Silent - Still - Non menacing

Soft curves: Rhythm - Movement - Happiness - Pleasure - Generosity - Femininity

Spiral: Expressions of Creativity; Process of Growth and Evolution.

Using Shape to Create Meaning

Shapes can be used to add interest to a design; or it can be used to sustain interest in content that may be extended or long. Variations in shape can be used to denote differences in content — Similarities in shape are used to show the organisation of similar items of content, ie. to organise and distinguish.

Shapes and the organisation of different shapes are often used to guide the eye through a design or layout. This is especially an important aspect of modern web design where a pages’ arrangement of shapes attempts to guide the visitors hand to ideal outcomes, such as pressing a call-out button or inputting an email address…

Design is as much an act of spacing as an act of marking.

Ellen Lupton.

To help to fine-tune your senses to the possibilities and meaning of shapes within design: Take a look at the short exercise outlined below. This simple game will have you thinking much more analytically about the use of shape. Just find yourself a pen and four pieces of paper, this exercise will work well in a group; or you can simply work at it alone.

Colourful childrens building blocks

Shape Meanings Game

An Exercise in Exploring Shape & Design

First of all, study the following three images carefully, for about five minutes. You will notice that the first image, (1), shows a variety of Different Lines: Vertical, Horizontal, Slant, Curve, Wavy, Zigzag and Curlicue.*

The second image, (2), shows types of Geometric Shapes: Circle, Oval, Square, Rectangle, Triangle, Trapezium, Parallelogram, Pentagon, Hexagon and Octagon. Finally, the third image, (3), Shows Organic Shapes; some of which have recognisable outlines, and some are simply abstract and unrecognisable.

*Curlicue: a fancy twist, or curl, composed usually from a series of concentric circles. It is a recurring motif in architecture (as decoration to the lintel/architrave above a door), in calligraphy and in general scrollwork).

Image 1.

Image 2.

Image 3.

Instructions

  1. Start with a pencil or pen and four sheets of paper.
  2. You will create four scenes or abstract compositions, one at a time
  3. Each player takes a turn and selects one of the lines, geometric shapes or organic shapes.
  4. All the players must use that shape or line in their current drawing. Even if you had not planned to use that particular line or shape - you must somehow incorporate it into your drawing.
  5. You have One Minute to include the line or shape before the next player takes a turn and calls out their chosen line or shape.
  6. After five lines/shapes are called out - you should complete the first drawing and move on in the same way to the next drawing.
  7. Once all four drawings have five shapes/lines on each - you can now choose which one of your drawings you like best and work into it with colour, shading and new shapes and lines. Don't, however, conceal any of the original lines/shapes.
  8. After everyone has finished working on their favourite drawing you can all display them for comparison and discussion.
  9. Focus on how creating this drawing made you feel. What shapes or lines were you drawn to the most? Why? Why did you develop this particular drawing and what did you emphasise?
  10. Are there many similarities or differences in how the group members responded to the different shapes and lines?


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