Agency tips

Design masterclass: Understanding the visual grammar of shapes

• By acaboom-admin on January 3rd, 2023 •

Shapes seem so simple to the ordinary observer, and we see them in web designs, presentations and artwork as we move through our everyday lives. Yet the shapes we see can affect our feelings, including how we feel about people and things and how we think about brands! Shapes are the building blocks of everything we see, and shapes’ meaning fundamentally relates to how we understand our world.

At Acaboom, when we design a template, we always consider how we can use shapes to elicit an emotional reaction from customers.

Acaboom graphic designer Marija Reikalas shares the secrets behind those simple lines that could lead to customers seeing you as more trustworthy, modern or risky!

Why do the shapes we use in design matter so much? 

Shapes are more than just practical design tools; their meanings allow designers to communicate visually. For example, shapes with rounded edges are softer, playful and approachable, and straighter lines are firmer. 

When it comes to using shapes in design and layout, designers use shapes to: symbolise ideas or concepts, communicate the character, and set a mood or emotion.

Are shapes more complicated than they may seem at first? 

 Shapes can be divided into three groups – simple/compound, organic/inorganic, and abstract / non-abstract.

Simple shapes are the fundamental geometric forms such as squares, triangles and circles. This also includes their corresponding three-dimensional structures—cubes, cylinders, cones and spheres. Compound shapes are larger, more complex shapes built out of simple shapes.

Organic shapes exist in natural surroundings, such as tree branches, clouds or rocks shaped by the sea. They tend to be curvier, composed of looser lines and less symmetrical than inorganic shapes—rigid, geometrical forms reminiscent of artificial objects such as buildings or machines. Organic shapes are generally created on a web page through illustration and photography. They are free-form, so there is that sense of freedom.

Then there are abstract shapes, which are stylised versions. (A blob that depicts a ‘person’ would be an example.

We can also consider icons – shapes that represent ideas. An example would be the lady in a dress to denote the women’s bathroom! 

What do shapes say about a brand? 

Circles have no beginning or end; they are the opposite of squares. The roundness implies that they are dynamic, always on the move. They remind us of a wheel or a ball. They have no sharp edges, which makes them appear friendlier and more approachable. All of this gives them a joyful, kind personality. On the other hand, the fact that they have no beginning or end leads them to be associated with broad concepts such as eternity or recurring cycles, such as the sun rising and setting. 

Squares and rectangles we typically associate with stability. They remind us of skyscrapers and urban architecture in general. They also tend to imply weight and gravity. Like buildings, you expect squares to stand still. Similarly, a character with square shoulders can be perceived as solid and imposing. Regarding personality, squares can imply both reliability and firm classic values. Orderly and familiar, both are good choices for seeming rational. 

Triangles are dynamic shapes that can be unintentionally aggressive or magical! They represent balance (think of the law and many religious symbols), but the connotations are also of sharpness – such as spearheads or rows seeming like sharp teeth. As such, they inherently imply hazards. (See road signs to find plenty!) Many ancient triangular structures, such as pyramids, were thought to be built to reach the sky. This suggests an idea of the divine and magic, depending on the context.

Abstract Shapes typically rely upon references based on external knowledge; their meaning can vary widely depending on the specific context. For example, in some cultures, a cross can represent the four seasons; in others, it is a religious symbolic reference that others might misunderstand. Similarly, in everyday app usage, we understand the same cross to signify an action of closing a window. Imagine showing that icon to someone who has been living without technology for the last few decades and has never used an app. Without shared cultural understanding, it would not be very meaningful to them. For all these reasons, it is best to research shapes individually before using them in design. 

What else might surprise people about how shapes can be used? 

You can play with the positioning. Large shapes appear closer. Small shapes appear further away, and putting shapes lower in the design or overlapping shapes can add depth to your design. It’s all part of the visual hierarchy – where positioning matters. If you are going for a particular meaning, you want to ensure the associated shape takes precedence. This allows its purpose to overpower the other shapes. 

 Do you have any tips for using shapes in your designs? 

It helps to keep your background shapes simple and significant. This can bring the focus of the viewer back to the foreground.

Consider the meaning of shapes in the design ideas; if you ignore them, you will not only risk missing out on their communicative power, you may accidentally create messages and meanings that don’t fit your design’s vision.

Understanding the meaning of shapes is only the first step. Using shape meanings consistently, subtly and effectively, along with all the other design elements, takes time and practice but is a powerful tool while creating a brand or communicating a message to your target audience.

About Marija:

 Marija is based in Porto, Portugal and has worked in graphic design for ten years and at Acaboom for three years. She has qualifications in Visual Design from Vilnius Art Academy (BA) and Visual Culture and Design from IADE Creative University, Portugal (MA).