Shapes might seem like a juvenile topic — something reserved for children’s books and toys. Yet just like colors and fonts, shapes are important design tools that can symbolize ideas, express moods, and lead the eye. But why?
Because of the psychological meanings behind shapes, they’re able to have quite an impact. In fact, you’re probably aware of them without even realizing it, since these meanings originate from universal associations with nature, man-made objects, icons, and symbols — basically, everything around us. Read on to learn more about what shapes symbolize (and why), plus how to use that symbolism effectively on your next project.
1. Rectangles and Squares
Rectangles and squares are the most common, familiar shapes we encounter. From signs to electronics to buildings, we look at them many times a day, every day.
With their smooth, straight lines and perfect right angles, rectangles lend a sense of stability and formality. Something about four points just feels solid (think about the four points of a compass). We trust the shape because it feels dependable and safe.
Literally and metaphorically, rectangular shapes are strong foundational building blocks that support overall structures. For example:
- In architecture — bricks, beams, columns
- In text — book paragraphs, newspaper columns
- In web design — HTML tables
Given this association with structure, it’s not surprising that many financial services opt to use squares and rectangles for their logos. Wells Fargo, American Express, and Visa all use them. The shape conveys reliability and longevity, while also feeling traditional, trustworthy, and authoritative (all important qualities in that industry). Some media and technology companies also use squares and rectangles, lending an air of gravitas (NPR, BBC, and Microsoft are some examples).
Unlike rectangles, plenty of circles exist all around us in nature. Because of ancient associations with the sun, moon, and Earth, there’s a cosmic and celestial link. In fact, in Samsung’s logo, the dark blue ellipse is meant to represent the universe.
Because circles have no beginning or end, they’re also connected to the idea of cycles, eternity, and timelessness. They feel complete and unified. Think of the circular yin-yang symbol (two halves make a whole); how the “refresh/reload” icon consists of a circular arrow; wedding bands; and clocks.
Where rectangles lack curves and feel masculine, circles embody femininity with their curves. They also suggest movement — think about wheels, soccer balls or basketballs, and the elliptical paths of planetary orbits.
Rectangles are usually the standard, default shape for many contexts. To make something stand out visually, try using circles in your design, since they are not used as often and will create visual interest.
Because they have a peak, triangles can symbolize greatness or superiority — it’s a visual representation of “the pinnacle of success.” The three stripes in Adidas’s logo create a triangle, which symbolizes a mountain — a metaphor for pushing yourself, overcoming challenges, and being the best you can be.
Triangles also create movement and lead our eye in a certain way. Because of the way they’re shaped, our eyes naturally follow them to the tip. An upright triangle will raise our eye vertically; a triangle on its side will move our eye sideways. (Given the association with movement and direction, it makes sense that the universal symbol for the “play” button happens to be a sideways triangle. Take Google Play’s logo for example.) If you’re looking to direct your audience’s eye toward something, triangles can be a good directional cue.
Triangles have dual meanings. When they’re upright, they feel stable, solid, and balanced (think of the ancient pyramids). But once you invert them, they feel top-heavy — wildly, precariously unbalanced; tense; risky. Think about this as you design: Is your brand more stable and established? Or maybe it’s a risky, disruptive start-up?
Triangles can likewise suggest conflict and action. In most countries around the world, traffic signs that indicate hazards are triangular. They can also signify change — the mathematical symbol delta (a triangle) means change or difference. In fact, Reebok’s logo (“the Reebok delta”) has 3 separate parts, each symbolizing the physical, mental, and social changes that take place when people push themselves beyond their limits.
With these three shapes, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what is available. There are many, many more shapes out there. So the next time you’re working on a design project, whether it’s a web page, logo, or something else, keep all of the psychological meanings behind shapes in mind. There’s a deeper meaning to them than meets the eye, and they can add a rich new dimension to your work.