We have already talked about the way in which different colours can transmit sensations or concepts, in the same way, the shapes themselves can transmit ideas or sensations.
The psychology of perception or shape is directly related to that demonstrated in the theory of Gestalt, which was a current of modern psychology that arose in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, which studied forms and how they directly influenced human perception.
Gestalt theories of perception are based on the natural human tendency to understand objects and structures as a whole, rather than the sum of their parts. At another time, I will do a post to go deeper into this interesting theory.
What is the psychology of perception?
Shape psychology is the discipline that studies the influence that shapes have on us. Its studies suggest that each shape can be attributed meanings or concepts, as they have a direct impact on our mind in relation to consciousness and behaviour.
We know that it is possible to perceive and analyse each visual element by its shape. For example, the sun is often interpreted as a circle surrounded by straight lines symbolising the sun and its rays. We also know that a triangle can symbolise caution, but why don’t we associate caution with another shape such as a square or a circle?
Normally people are not aware of the shapes and forms that surround us, but the truth is that shapes can have a great impact on our consciousness.
The psychology of shape says that each shape has its own meaning and can influence our minds in different ways. There are even some psychological tests that use shapes to define the “personality” or mental condition of an individual, such as the Bender test or the Rorschach test. It is believed that your favourite shape, or quick choice of a shape, could inform about some deep personality traits.
Many years of research have ended up helping professionals to define the meaning that each shape evokes and how the shape can influence human perception. Let’s go into these shapes a little more in depth.
Think of a shape – do you have one yet? Most people will think of geometric shapes and not especially organic shapes.
Let’s find out a bit more about the meaning that each geometric shape evokes according to the psychology of form.
Circle (and ellipse)
As it has no beginning and no end, the shape of the circle is associated with eternity. It is also related to the stars, planets and the concept of unity. It is a very powerful shape that incites us to focus, as it does not allow us to get out of it.
Oval or round shapes, lacking angles or peaks, evoke more empathic and closer emotions. They are therefore emotionally more positive and less cold than the rectangular ones we will now see.
Some common meanings of oval shapes and circles are: adaptability, unity, movement, globality, softness, perfection, infinity, protection, reliability, eternity and feminism.
Square (and rectangle)
The square and the rectangle are two of the shapes we see most often on a daily basis. Think of the walls in your home, the furniture, books, your computer screen…
The lines and right angles of squares produce a sense of robustness that evokes reliability and security.
Some common meanings of square and rectangular shapes are: discipline, strength, solidity, order, masculinity, stability, confidence, courage, robustness, authority, security and reliability.
The triangle is a very dynamic, strong and energetic shape that is associated with movement and direction. It can also be related to divinity.
Because the triangle is a very dynamic shape, it can also have different meanings depending on how it is oriented. For example, a vertical triangle can evoke feelings of stability, hierarchy and balance. An inverted triangle, on the other hand, will evoke risk, instability and caution, as it will give us the feeling that it is about to fall, causing a sense of tension. If the triangle is tilted, depending on the orientation, its lateral lines direct us to move our eye towards the tip.
Some common meanings of triangular shapes are: emotion, power, advancement, vitality, growth, direction, stability or instability, risk, danger and balance.
Lines (straight and curved)
Lines, straight and curved, convey directionality and division if they are loose, help to delimit shapes and when grouped together can also help to convey more concepts or emotions.
Inclined lines: evoke movement, dynamism, speed and a slight feeling of strength or tension.
Horizontal lines: convey calm, reliability, confidence and a sense of peace.
Lines in a vertical position: have a more energetic position that contributes to drawing more attention and organising the composition. They evoke balance, projection, hierarchy or efficiency.
Some common meanings of straight lines would be: union, link, communication, relationship, dynamism and coordination.
Curved lines, more organic, convey: movement, rhythm, fun, communication or dynamism.
The shape of spirals is quite present in nature, explained by the golden ratio, the cylindrical helix or Archimedes’ spiral. We can see them in shells, galaxies, hurricanes, flowers, spider webs and a long etcetera.
That is why spiral shapes are also associated with growth, life (birth and death) or evolution. In some cultures spirals can also represent knowledge.
Some common meanings of spiral shapes are: growth, creativity, continuity, illusion, calm, intelligence, energy, vitality and imagination.
Crossed shapes or crosses are associated with balance, hope and divinity. They can also be interpreted as a crossing point. They are used to suggest life and health, unity, hope, relationships, balance, opposition and spirituality.
We have already seen how geometric shapes evoke different sensations and emotions. Let us now see what non-geometric shapes, such as organic shapes and abstract shapes, transmit to us according to this shape psychology.
Organic shapes are those related to natural shapes. Think of all the shapes created by nature, such as the shape of a drop, a snowflake, a leaf or flowers.
These are shapes that have inspired artists and designers. Natural shapes have clear meanings of the plants and animals they symbolise and give us a sense of freshness and unity with the natural environment.
Animals and plants can also have their own meanings if we use them as symbols. For example, a rose can be a symbol of love, a drop can suggest freshness, a deer elegance and respect, while a lion is a symbol of pride and courage.
Some common meanings of organic shapes could be: originality, organic, balance and freshness, although in this case, some of these meanings tend to change depending on the region or culture of the people.
Forms that are visual manifestations or symbols of abstract concepts or ideas are called abstract forms. They are forms conceived by mental abstraction.
Some abstract forms may end up being difficult to recognise. After being synthesised they may give only small clues as to what they represent. Often abstract forms represent a single concept or a simplified version of an organic form.
Abstract shapes are quite often used in logo design, iconography or signage, sometimes with the help of negative space. Abstract shapes are a very effective way of conveying a message without text.
How to use the psychology of perception in graphic design
We already know that shapes are key visual elements in graphic design. They can help us to make a visual composition, structuring information or relating other elements. If we want to make a more sophisticated design, we must take into consideration the meanings of shapes.
Graphic designers are visual communicators. We communicate through images by designing compositions with meaning. Some of the compositions that can make the best use of shapes would be, for example, the design of logos, icons, web design or typographies.
However, the psychology of perception is also frequently used in other fields of graphic design such as editorial design or web usability. Design elements can be structured in certain ways to guide the user’s eyes to easily find the most important information. They therefore help us to establish a correct visual hierarchy.
Psychology of perception and logo design
The functionality of a logo can often be linked to the way people perceive it. There are many factors that can influence human perception.
A logo is a key tool for any company. It must contribute to transmit (and evoke) a message or meaning in accordance with the brand. If we choose the right shapes for the design of a logo, we will contribute to transmit the desired feeling without resorting to text or additional information.
For example, let’s imagine that we need to develop a logo for a bank. Perhaps a positive approach could be to try to apply in the logo design the use of some shape that transmits confidence and security. Yes, the square can be a good starting point.
On the other hand, imagine you are working on a logo for a children’s brand. In this case, soft, rounded shapes should be present.
The psychology of shape can be very useful not only for creating logos that help to emphasise what we want to communicate, but also for all other graphic design compositions.
Psychology of perception and typography
The psychology of shape also plays a very important role in typography. We have already seen that there are countless different typefaces, and we classify them according to their shape in four large groups: serif typefaces, san serif typefaces, script typefaces and display typefaces.
To better understand the personality of typography or typographic psychology, it is necessary to study the shape of its characters. Assess whether they have more geometric or perhaps more organic shapes. If they have more straight and pointed shapes, such as those found in a dry stick typeface, or perhaps more curved and smooth, such as those found in a script typeface.
Typefaces that contain dominant characters with more rounded and curved shapes can evoke a bit more sophistication and femininity. Unlike characters with straighter shapes and angles that can evoke more stability and sometimes some aggressiveness.
That is why it is key that we always pay attention to the dominant shapes of any typeface. This way we can select a typeface that favours the context of our message and visual communication.
Here are some examples:
Volvo uses a typeface composed of rectangular and serif shapes conveying security, stability and reliability.
LinkedIn seeks to convey security, topicality and professionalism, so it is not surprising that it uses a dry stick typeface and shapes with right angles.
Cadillac opts for a script typeface with organic shapes that convey elegance and sophistication.
Disney, on the other hand, is a logo composed of organic shapes with a display or decorative typography that conveys closeness, friendliness and a lot of personality.
Psychology of perception in web design
In the design of web pages, the psychology of perception is also taken into account. This not only presents a design that conveys a feeling, but also makes the website easier to read, directing the user to where we want them to navigate.
For example, if you want visitors to scroll down your website, you should consider a shape that tends towards verticality, while it would be convenient to create a rectangular or horizontal composition if you want them to stay in a certain place.
The combination of different shapes in the design of a website is a relevant aspect of usability and user experience, i.e. UX/UI design. The fundamental task is to convey a message through shapes. Therefore, if you know their meaning well, your graphic works will be more professional.
The psychology of form is a good tool for adding meaning or creating new visual interest in our design projects. The use of shapes adds an intrinsic value that we all understand to the message we want to convey.
But don’t over-saturate the message either. Most professional projects use shapes in such a way that we are not even aware that they are being used.
Hi, I’m Roberto Vidiella.
I am the founder and Creative Director of VIDI. I am passionate about graphic design, and through this blog, I try to deepen my knowledge and share what I have learned during my career. If you leave me a comment, you help me to keep learning and improving, and also because I’m really excited about it!