Let’s explore how you can use shapes to make your images and designs more impactful, and learn more about the fascinating psychology of shape.
As the building blocks of how we perceive forms and objects, shapes are intrinsic to how we respond to visual content. Stemming from our basic need to structure and categorize the world around us, shapes have become the visual language that informs our emotional response to imagery.
When designers and photographers become aware of the psychological impact of shapes, they’re able to define how their images are received by viewers. Whether you opt for geometric squares or organic pebbles, forms can have a huge effect on the overall impact of a design—a technique that’s often used in professional logo design to foster brand perception and memorability.
Read on to discover how you can use shapes to make your images and designs more impactful, as well as more about the fascinating psychology of shape—from how triangles can convey both aspiration and instability, to how organic shapes can boost the creative power of your designs.
What Are Shapes and Why Are They Important in Imagery?
Although the world is full of irregularities, differences, and uniqueness, the human mind has evolved to categorize and group everything within it. This inescapable need to define all things is an evolutionary coping mechanism, allowing us to foster structure and order in our individual lives and wider societies.
This incessant need to categorize and simplify has extended to how we perceive our visual environment. By assigning all things a “shape,” over time, we’ve built up a detailed encyclopedia of visual forms that have associated characteristics and psychological meanings.
A simple example would be the moon and sun. By assigning these a circular shape, all circles take on some of the psychological and cultural baggage of these round forms that would have been an ever-present feature of our earliest ancestors’ lives. Often associated with sacredness, religion, and eternity, circles have never shed their mysterious celestial ties. They are often used in design to convey nature-themed concepts or to demonstrate a sense of unity and perfection.
While things in the world around us are often made up of groups of forms combined together, we can dissect these forms into three broad categories of shape:
- Geometric Shapes
- Organic Shapes
- Abstract Shapes
Geometric shapes are made up of a series of straight lines combined into a form that often features symmetrical elements and hard edges. Triangles, squares, rectangles, and diamonds are common geometric shapes.
While circles are curved, their symmetry and dimensional perfection places them alongside other geometric shapes.
Geometric shapes mimic the structure of built environments and suggest pattern and order. They can communicate efficiency, discipline, and solidity. They can also direct the eye with strong edges that appear to point. Arrows and triangles are good examples of this.
Organic or natural shapes mimic the form of most objects in nature, such as the imperfect, curved shapes of rocks, clouds, or trees.
Early humans would have had more familiarity with organic shapes than geometric ones. As a result, these free-form shapes feel familiar and comforting. Because of their asymmetry, organic shapes often convey a sense of creativity and spontaneity.
Abstract shapes are simplified versions of real-life organic forms.
A stick figure is a universally-recognizable abstract shape representing a person. Glyphs, icons, and symbols are also abstract shapes, and might have elements of both geometric and organic forms in their shape.
Abstract shapes are often immediately and universally recognizable, making them useful for designs that require instant comprehension such as signage, keyboard symbols, or website icons.
How to Use Shapes in Your Photography and Design Projects
In design, photography, and art, these three broad categories of shape—geometric, organic, and abstract—play important roles in helping the viewer not only see the form of the image or design, but also how they respond to and feel about the image. Not only does the type of shape you use inform the psychological and emotional response of the person viewing the image (see below), but even the way you use that shape can have a transformative effect on the visual result.
For example, a viewer might categorize a mountain peak as triangular, but how that shape is presented can also reinforce feelings of progression, achievement, or action. A triangular mountain centered in a photo can help the triangle to feel more dominant, rising above other features in the landscape—the perfect message for a brand focused on achieving goals for its clients.
Now imagine simplifying that mountain into a three-sided triangle shape, and flipping it vertically, so that the wide base is balancing on an impossibly narrow point. The sense of imbalance in the shape transforms the psychological impact of the triangle—now it feels unstable, anarchic even. For businesses looking to present themselves as challengers or against the norm, an upside-down triangle might actually be the perfect fit.
As the basic building blocks of any image, shapes are quietly powerful, defining the way we respond to an image emotionally. Different shapes communicate different psychological and symbolic meanings, which means wily designers can use them to reinforce the message or impact of an image.
Read on to discover how to use common types of shape in your designs, photos, and illustrations, to make them as impactful as possible.
Perfect circles are rare in the natural environment. Being the shape of life-giving elements like the sun and moon, they’ve become symbolic of the life-cycle and have a sacred quality. Alongside this, circles also have a friendlier association, being the shape of balls, oranges, and wheels. Circles have a contradictory psychology—they can be used to suggest mystery and restraint, but also inclusiveness. Some well-known circular logos include NASA, Google Chrome, and Pepsi.
Circular imagery in photos has an other-worldly impact, and can be used in juxtaposition with asymmetrical organic shapes to create an eye-catching image.
In illustration and logo design, the circle can be used as a unifying visual cue. Desktop icons and app icons are often circular because the circle frames the brand mark or symbol inside, drawing the eye towards it. Brands who want to come across as open and friendly often use circular logos. Additionally, sports brands use circles to draw similarities with the shape of balls used in games.
Squares and Rectangles
Squares, with their rigid edges and even proportions, suggest stability and order. Square shapes are calming and pleasing to look at because they evoke a sense of conformity, honesty, and rationality. You can’t imagine a square shape being easily toppled, so images with squares as the dominant shape feel exceptionally reassuring.
In photography, squares and rectangles often feature in architectural imagery, which reinforces the impression of mass and stability. Squares are most commonly seen in built environments, so they can be used to give an urban and polished feel to images.
Squares are often used by brands who want to appear down-to-earth or practical. National Geographic, GAP, and Facebook all use square logos for the purpose of appearing efficient, grounded, and accessible to a wide audience.
As touched on earlier, triangles can have a widely differing psychological impact depending on how they’re used. The shape of pyramids, which were designed to point toward the heavens, triangles have an ancient association with spirituality and ritual. They’re stable, with broad bases, but also extreme, with the pointed tip drawing the eye upwards. Triangles can feel confident and dynamic, but also confrontational and aggressive. When inverted, they can come across as unstable and dangerous, or creative and unconventional.
Integrated into photos, triangle shapes can be a visual arrow device to channel a viewer’s attention towards the top, side, or bottom of an image, depending on the orientation of the triangle.
In illustration and logo design, triangles can take on a symbolic quality. Long-associated with ancient spirituality and historic societies, they make an unusual but appropriate fit for research organizations, academia, or religious groups.
Crosses are the result of two rectangles or lines intersecting, but can also be made up of intersecting triangles, circles, or ovals.
Traditionally symbolic of the meeting of divine energies, crosses still retain their religious association, but also suggest healing and balance, making them a natural fit for medical-themed branding.
In photography, crosses can be indicative of crossroads or meetings, giving images a sense of movement and interaction.
Spirals and Crests
Spirals occur in dynamic natural occurrences, such as tornadoes, whirlpools, and galaxies, as well as in the twirling interior of seashells and rose petals. These shapes are creative, energizing, and feel like they’re in motion. Spirals can feel either expansive or all-consuming, depending on whether the flow of the shape is perceived as expanding outwards or retreating inwards, and are often associated with transitions, such as life, death, birth, and transformation.
While spirals make for beautiful and immersive photographs, their conflicting nature might have contributed to their rarity in logo design. Ubisoft has probably the most recognizable spiral logo, while the ubiquitous recycling icon uses a variation of a spiral shape to suggest transition and movement.
Crests, which mimic the form of waves, have a similar dynamic energy to spirals, and are suggestive of potential and anticipation. Logos that use crests feel dynamic and pent-up, giving them a sense of excitement and energy.
Non-geometric, natural shapes come in a wide range of forms, from smooth, pebble-like curves to jaunty petals, waves, and cloud-like splashes. Inspired by forms commonly seen in nature, these types of shapes appeal to our basic instincts. Comforting, expressive, and occasionally childlike, organic shapes convey movement, playfulness, and generosity. They’re often perceived as being more feminine than sharp-angled geometric shapes, which traditionally made them a common choice for brand logos aimed at female audiences.
While corporate brands often choose hard-edged geometric shapes for their branding, businesses that want to appear open-minded, exploratory, or fun are more likely to opt for organic shapes in their logo designs. As a result, many independent brands opt for organic shapes in their branding and signage to differentiate themselves from geometric corporates.
The Shape of Things to Come…
Shapes are the building blocks of how we as humans process the world around us. Although reducing objects to their basic shapes can feel like a childlike exercise, this allows us to see how important shapes are in affecting our emotional response to imagery.
Want to learn more about the theory of design? From how to use the power of color psychology effectively in your photography, to the ultimate guide to using the Golden Ratio, don’t miss these articles:
- The Ultimate Guide to the Golden Ratio and How to Apply It to Your Designs
- Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black
- Complete Guide to Color in Design: Color Meaning, Color Theory, and More
- 5 Ideas for Using Abstract Art in Your Website Designs
- Design Trend: Abstract Geometry, a Historically Modern Style
Cover image by contributor Sanjatosic.