Much is said about the psychology of colors and how it influences our perception of the world around us. Yellow brings confidence, Red brings energy etc.
Just like colors, geometric shapes also influence our lives more than we think. An old-fashioned person is called a square — in Portuguese as well! — and good things are smooth (without corners).
Design takes advantage of shapes to achieve different results. Knowledge about shapes is applied to a range of situations, products and brands in order to convey the right message to their target audience.
In this article, we will talk a little about how shapes — pointy or rounded — affect us. We will also briefly introduce semiotics and discuss synesthesia and the “Kiki/Bouba” test, which shows how shapes influence us.
How are meanings assigned to shapes?
Semiotics is the field of study responsible for investigating signs processes. A sign is anything that can be used to represent something. This “something” can have a collective or individual meaning, which can differ according to the culture, historical moment or experience of each person.
Some civilizations, for example, worshiped phallic shapes. To them, these shapes symbolized fertility and pleasure. Other cultures shunned these same shapes, believing they represented debauchery and immorality. This shows that the same sign can be understood in many ways, depending on different factors.
Signs and their meanings are built with the evolution of civilizations. Although their interpretation can be changed according to culture or personal understanding, this meaning is usually assigned unconsciously.
Thus, connections between signs and meanings can be established in many ways, which are still studied by different fields. However, it is interesting to note the consistency of some of these meanings, especially those connected to shapes.
By identifying meanings that are already present in the collective imaginary, it is possible to use shapes and their senses to convey messages.
Design applies this knowledge to make products and experiences that communicate messages to their target audiences in an effective but subtle way.
Grammar describes synesthesia as a figure of speech in which we associate sensations from one sense to another. In Neurology, it is a phenomenon in which there may be sensory confusion. For example, there are people who have their sense taste activated by hearing certain sounds.
Neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard of the University of California argue that the human brain is naturally synesthetic. To verify their hypothesis, they came up an experiement.
They drew a rounded shape and a spiked one, calling them “Bouba” and “Kiki”. Participants in the experiment would choose which of the shapes was “Bouba” and which was “Kiki”, without extra context information.
Which of the images below do you think is Kiki? What About Bouba?
Description: One pointed shape and another curvaceous Source: BBC
If you named them Kiki and Bouba respectively, you are in the vast majority. 95-98% of the people tested by Ramachandran named them that way. How does this consistency in results occur? The researchers explain that our brain links sound, shape and image.
When you say “Bouba“, the sound comes out softer, or “rounded”. Your brain links the word — Bouba — and the second, more rounded image, which shares the same characteristics.
This discovery has several implications. To us, it demonstrates that vision has the ability to influence other senses. For example, have you ever seen a round cushion and imagined how soft it would be?
Rectangles convey the feeling of strength, security and endurance. Old-fashioned people are called “square”. However, the truth is that there are companies that adopt rectangular shapes in their products and manage to create modern solutions that convey robustness and stability.
Description: Site www.carbondesignsystem.com/components/button/usage
Take a look at the IBM website. It is assembled using their design System, IBM Carbon. Its elements — fonts, navigation bar, dropdown menus and buttons — are all rectangular. This esthetic choice speaks directly to the company’s brand, which also brings angles, straight lines and conveys the feeling of security, robustness and confidence.
Round shapes give us the feeling of comfort and approachability. They don’t need to be a perfect circle necessarily. iFood (a popular Brazilian food delivery app), for example, rounds their buttons and illustrations slightly, but quite effectively. Compare iFood’s interface with that of IBM, which one seems more approachable?
Description: IFood app screen.
Triangles bring the feeling of movement and speed, not only visually, but also due to practical issues, like aerodynamics. In interfaces, triangular shapes give a sense of continuity.
In addition, triangles can also mean danger. Weapons, ammunition, teeth, claws, needles and many objects capable of injuring us have pointy shapes. Therefore, this shape can also instill danger. Many interfaces use this meaning when issuing alerts.
Description: Windows alert message
Note that the Windows alert symbol, and other interfaces, is similar to some road signs. The triangular shape, even before we read the message’s content, already makes us realize that there is some kind of danger, putting us at attention.
Shapes are symbols, so they are imbued with cultural significance. There are, in neuroscience, ongoing studies to understand how shapes may have influenced language and other fields. These studies seek to identify meanings in ways that are not always explicit, but that can direct an audience’s perception — be it a product, brand or experience.
Therefore, when employing shapes, it is important to have solid basis and analysis. As can be seen from the examples, good results can be found when the shapes are used correctly.
Shapes are powerful creators of meaning, even if this is done subtly or implicitly. Choice of shapes are decisions that are often considered less important, but that are actually essential in the creative and design process, as they allow the desired message to reach its target audience.