Shape Psychology in Design
This article is an excerpt from our design book Contrast: Intro to Designing beyond form and function.
As we discussed previously with color (or read it here), our past experiences with certain shapes paired with traditions in design can guide our preconceptions towards different shapes. Naturally we can see if something is sharp it might hurt us, or if it is round it might roll well, and so on. This is coupled with how our vision tends to flow around the shape; circles are infinitely connected, triangles point in a direction, which then applies an additional lens to our perception and adds meaning. We can then take this information, and use it to make more informed decisions in our designs.
As there are literally an infinite amount of meanings that shapes can have associated with them, shape psychology is an extremely subjective field, so only the most common and obvious associations will be provided here.
Squares & Rectangles
discipline, strength, reliability, security
Squares and rectangles have straight lines and right angles, giving them a very balanced, mathematical, and logical feel. As we see and use rectangles in our structures and buildings, they can give a sense of stability and solidity.
Rectangles are the most used shape in logo design and are especially used in bank logos.
balance, stability, excitement, aggressive, danger
Triangles are special in that we perceive them differently depending on their orientation or if their sides are equal or different lengths. Our eyes will typically follow the direction that a triangle is pointing which can give them feelings of action, energy, and purpose. When positioned upright, a triangle feels very stable and balanced (like the pyramids) but positioned otherwise they can feel risky and ready to fall.
Equilateral triangles are by far the most used triangle in design applications.
Circles & Ellipses
eternity, universe, mystery, unity, completion
Circles are generally perceived as softer and milder as they don’t have angles. Their curved lines can give a sense of grace and completion, and a flawless circle is often associated with perfection. With no definite beginning or end, and that we see these shapes in the sun and moon, they represent life and the lifecycle. Circles can also have a sense of free movement such as wheels and balls.
Some research has shown that people feel calmer and more relaxed in a room that doesn’t have sharp corners or edges.
growth, creativity, calmness, intelligence
Spirals, whether seen as draining or expanding, carry the notion of change and evolution as they have an implied sense of motion. When expanding, spirals can be seen as creative, with vibes of growth and progress. Spirals don’t always have to follow a circular motion and can take you on a journey through their curves.
A common misconception is that the nautilus shell spiral follows the Fibonacci spiral (aka the Golden Spiral), but it actually follows a different golden ratio spiral, coined the “golden ratio to opposite spiral.”
Whether you are in graphic design, interior design, web design, architecture, industrial design, you can use these these psychology of shapes design principles to push your creations to their full potential. By affecting people's emotions correctly, you can create a stronger link between them and your design, which will leave lasting impressions.
Have fun designing!
If you found this interesting or useful, check out our post about color psychology in design and how to utilize that to your advantage!