Shapes are a powerful communication tool that designers can use to influence the way people perceive companies. People’s minds interpret shapes subconsciously and associate them with different thoughts and emotions, so designers should make sure that the shapes they incorporate in their work match up with the message they’re trying to convey. Shapes are also important elements in designs because they are often used to guide the eye and separate information.
Shapes can generally be divided into three categories: geometric, abstract, and natural/organic. Geometric shapes are what we encounter the most often in design, so adding shapes which imitate those found in nature, or that represent different objects and concepts, can add visual interest to a piece. Interest can also be added by combining shapes, but they should be used no more than necessary so that the viewer doesn’t become overwhelmed.
Examples of sharp geometric shapes are squares, rectangles, and triangles. Rectangles and squares are extremely common, and although they convey stability and trustworthiness when resting on their base, they can also appear boring. Triangles are associated with masculinity, power, science, religion, and law, and they are often used as guiding or navigational shapes.
“Softer” geometric shapes include curves, spirals, and circles, which convey a sense of movement. These shapes are generally associated with femininity and cause positive emotions; they can be added to sharper-edged shapes like squares to make a design feel more friendly. Closed circles are commonly used to represent community, friendship, and completeness.
Natural or organic shapes imitate shapes that are found in nature; for example, the Whole Foods logo contains the silhouette of a leaf. These shapes are comforting to people and add uniqueness to a brand. They feel more spontaneous than geometric shapes and are usually more interesting to look at, especially when they lack symmetry.
Abstract shapes can be simplified versions of organic shapes that lack definition (for example, the Apple logo), but can also carry cultural meaning (such as a red octagon meaning “stop”). Some common abstract shapes that are almost universally recognized are the heart, which symbolizes love and romance, and the star, which symbolizes success and light. Using a distinctive abstract shape as a logo makes a brand more memorable to potential customers.
Combining shapes, colors, and fonts to create different meanings is an important skill for a designer to have. Even if people don’t take active notice of shapes, they are an inherent part of any design — including shapes created with negative space — and all carry some sort of meaning which can make or break a design.