NU Creative | Blog | Psychology of shapes in design

The success of any visual composition highly relates to how people perceive it, it's not just about what you see, but also how your brain processes the information. Although colour tends to be the first thing that people notice in a design, shapes are just as important and by choosing the right shapes, designers can influence the way people perceive a design and respond to it. The science studying the influence of shapes on our psyche is known as the psychology of shapes; it suggests that each shape has a different meaning and triggers a unique response in our minds.

From early art forms to hieroglyphs, shapes have been influential in how we have evolved our non-verbal communication and with that, the symbolism attached to shapes has evolved to the status of archetypes. This basic but powerful language is an important tool for designers to understand and to harness for their subtle influence on human perception.  

So, let’s get started:

1. Squares and rectangle
These two shapes are the most used in graphic design layouts. We tend to see straight lines and right angles everywhere on a daily basis, from picture frames to large buildings, and they give people a sense of reliability, security, stability, and balance.
Companies like Microsoft and American Express use square logos to transmit a sense of order, confidence, and trust. The American Express logo, for example, uses the square to contain and secure the logo and the bold to give off a sense of strength and fortitude. If your brand is connected to finance, or dealing with sensitive information, a square/rectangle element in your branding may be the right one.

2. Triangles
The polygon with three edges and three vertices is an energetic and dynamic shape, always associated with motion and direction, they stand out for their combination of straight lines and sharp angles. The lines are placed in a way that our eyes can move where the direction of the top of the triangle is placed. If you want to represent order, stability, balance, movement, power and energy in your design, triangles are the right shape to use. Triangles can have different meanings and it can change drastically depending on the way they are placed. Upwards-facing triangles can represent balance and stability, whereas the reversed one gives people a sense of risk, danger, and instability.

3. Circles, Ovals and Ellipses
Circular shapes like oval and ellipses are some of the most common shapes in design. With no angles, circles feel softer than other shapes. They represent wholeness and infinity giving a feeling of unity, protection, and mystery. Ovals and spheres, with their egg-like appearance are often connected to femininity, conveying birth, nurture, care and fertility, while rings are more frequently used to convey love, and unity between unbreakable bond.

The Olympics logo offers a perfect example of ‘ringed’ logo mark. It’s five intersecting rings representing the union of the five continents in a spirit of pure competition and celebration of Olympism. The five colours on the white background combined to represent the colours of all the nations of the world without exception (Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the Olympic Movement), in itself representing community and diversity.

4. Abstract Shapes
Abstract shapes tend to be non-geometric, free-form shapes that can be morphed, or moulded from other shapes or even be loose representations of recognisable objects. They play a huge role in all graphic design projects because their flexibility and ability to imply moods, energy or feelings can be highly evocative and useful in a dense visual world. A good example of an abstract shape is the Nike logo, the famous swoosh implies the tick, and therefore quality and approval. The energy implies motivation, speed and the ‘rightness’ of the brand choice. Whatever shape you choose, geometric, even, unbalanced, non-uniform, soft-edged or hard they speak a primitive language which we understand and most likely use instinctively and form a fundamental building block to the design process.