The psychology behind shapes and colors
So, how does this work?
Design influences the way we perceive the world, the way we feel and the choices we make. Design is an act of communication, often tailored to the receiver’s psyche, culture and background.
For centuries people have been using shapes, colors, typography and compositions to create stories, architecture, prints, products, identities and experiences that have influenced and defined cultures around the globe. Shapes, objects, colors and typefaces speak to us in several ways.
We can see symbolism and meaning by our associations and personal experiences, because of its context, but also on a subconscious level.
To communicate to your target audience effectively as a designer, having knowledge of the psychological principles of human behavior can be very helpful.
I’ve been a visual designer for a number of years now. As a designer that mostly designs websites, apps and other online services, accessibility and usability are very important.
For example, it’s essential that I make sure there is enough contrast on the buttons and that I use elements and layouts that the target audience is comfortable with.
But my fascination with design lies in another area of my craft: Using shapes, colors, typefaces, compositions and symbolism to influence the way the end-users feel about a certain company or product. Today I would like to focus on the first two: Shapes and colors.
So, how does this work?
Our brains are hardwired to derive meaning from shapes, which have a bigger impact on our subconscious than you might think! Shapes have associations that can be used by a designer to set the mood and visualize a backstory.
For example, shapes can be applied to typefaces, cartoon characters, compositions and logos.
Triangles can be perceived as being edgy, defiant, powerful and having a purpose. The evil character in a cartoon, for example, will usually be built up by triangles.
They will have pointy noses and sharp edges. Because of these characteristics, your brain will interpret this character to be powerful, edgy, mischievous, and a troublemaker.
Triangle shapes in typography can have an aggressive look & feel, because of their sharp angles. You can also associate triangles as a symbol for the great pyramids, which portray power and wealth. Companies that want to portray masculinity and stability often use this shape in their logo.
Circles can be associated with being friendly and non-threatening. In a cartoon, the friendly characters are usually built up by circular shapes. A circle has no beginning or end and it has no edges. Curves in general are seen as more feminine compared to their sharp-angled cousins.
You can also associate circles and spheres with the world we live in or the circle of life. In this sense, they can symbolize community and unity. Circular shapes and rounded corners in typefaces can make a text feel fun and friendly.
Companies often use circular shapes in their logo to portray a feeling of security, continuity, and protection.
Squares and rectangles, mainly because of their sturdy, solid appearance and symmetry can be associated as being strong, stable, balanced, professional and efficient. Because of these associations, superheroes and powerful characters in cartoons are often built up by square shapes.
Companies that want to be seen as professional and reliable will often use this shape in their logo or use a typeface with these characteristics in their brand guide.
Personalities of shapes and colors
Even the direction of lines can make an impact on your perception. Horizontal lines can come across as calm and progressive, and having a sense of community. They can symbolize a horizon or progress, which conveys a feeling of rest and tranquility.
Vertical lines, on the other hand, are more often associated with strength, height, aggression and masculinity. Diagonal lines can be symbolic for decline or progress.
Colors have an enormous impact on us. Colors can make a design look and feel cheap, expensive, homemade, natural or exciting. But colors don’t only affect us psychologically, also physically.
They can be used to stimulate our appetite, make us calm, agitate us, they can even raise our blood pressure! The meaning of a color can be learned or be biologically innate and can vary depending on the color’s shade, tint and hue.
But contrary to popular belief, independent colors do not have one symbolic meaning.
For example: it’s easy to conclude that a red button is associated with negative feelings and a green button with positive ones.
But it’s not as simple as that. Yes, we all consciously and subconsciously derive meaning from certain colors, but how these colors affect us depends on numerous factors. The meaning we derive from colors depends on our age, gender and circumstances.
It also differs widely from culture to culture and often stems from religion, spirituality, social environment and historical events.
The color red for example. Seeing the color red can stimulate your appetite. It’s no coincidence that most fast food restaurants use the color red in their brand identity. Studies have shown that being surrounded by the color red can have a stimulating effect on our body.
It can even influence our breathing pattern, pulse, blood pressure and muscle tension. If we are overstimulated, we can become agitated and aggressive. If you have no stimulating colors around you, it can have the reverse effect.
Being in a completely white environment for longer periods of time can lead to anxiety, sleeplessness and nervousness. In western culture red is known for warmth, energy, passion and love.
But also, for warnings and negativity. But coming back to symbolism and historic events, in Russia people will be reminded of communism and revolution. In Asian countries, brides usually wear red on their wedding day, because here the color is symbolic for happiness and prosperity.
The color green can be associated with finance, ambition, envy and greed. But also, with nature, fertility and harmony. By being surrounded by too much green, a person can become lazy, moody and depressed. On the other hand, not enough green can cause feelings of apathy and boredom.
Yellow-green can stand for jealousy and cowardice.
How do we use this information?
There are many textures, color schemes, typefaces and objects that people will associate with a certain mood, taste or period in time.
This powerful tool is used by designers to communicate backstories and add context to designed products or services. If colors and shapes have so many meanings, and are symbolic for so many emotions, how do I know how to use them? It all depends on context: who is your audience, and what message do you want to send.
Design is all about storytelling. It’s about creating an experience for the users that fits the market you are in and the strategy of a company, service or product.
Whether it is true or not, we can convince you that a product has a rich heritage, is progressive and modern, or comes from a certain region.
Because designers have the power to make a cheap product seem expensive or make a villain look trustworthy, ethics and morals come into play.
Guiding users to a certain outcome, warning them or giving them a backstory to your brand are ways of manipulation that are mostly harmless, and even beneficial.
You can argue if it’s ethical to exaggerate how organic or exclusive a company or product is. But when you look at propaganda for example, it can be frightening to see that mass manipulation can have dangerous consequences.
Graphic design is very powerful. It’s a fine balance between esthetics, research and strategy. A professional designer can help you create a brand your customers can trust and tell the stories that need to be told.
Senior Visual Designer @Idean