We perceive thousands of objects everyday without even thinking about it. Our brains scan the surroundings at the speed of light. This ability is vital for living comfortably, as everyday we need to perceive, observe, understand, visualise, look or watch. The interpretation of our environment may sometimes vary, as it depends, for instance, on the beliefs we were taught. However, there are some common qualities that most of us associate with certain shapes.
So what is shape language? In essence, it is the information we receive from looking at an object. The object communicates its nature with the help of the basic shapes that it is made of. Every complex object can be broken down into three fundamental shapes: circle, square, and triangle.
Orientation of lines and their principles
But before talking about shapes, let’s see how the orientation of lines influences our perception. Learning these principles can make it easier to understand the qualities of each shape.
The experience of gravity extends to our interpretation of images as well. We experience angles and orientation in a manner similar to how we see objects in real life. Through a particular orientation of lines that is consistent with our reality, images appear more real to us.
1. Horizontal lines give us a sense of stability and calm.
Even when we have a group of lines, short or long, they don’t lose this power. Horizontally oriented shapes feel peaceful and grounded. It is the case partly because we feel the most stable when lying flat. In this position, we can’t fall down. The same goes for all objects in nature: the horizontal position is calm and stable.
2. Vertical lines are active.
After changing direction of the same lines we immediately feel a difference. Lines appear to have more power – they grow up and appear lighter.
3. Diagonal lines are the most dynamic because they suggest motion or tension.
We perceive images in perspective as more dynamic than flat ones. The oblique position of an object indicates an internal tension in the direction of movement. An object with an inclined orientation is full of potential energy, which distinguishes it from the calmness of an object located in any other position (vertical or horizontal).
By combining these principles, you get new ones. For instance, if you put a horizontal line on vertical ones, they feel more stable and ordered, but still have the power and elegance of verticals (1). If you add diagonal lines to connect the other ones, the construction feels much more secure because oblique lines take all the tension (2).
Basic shapes and our perception
Shapes are used in illustration for better communication with the viewer. Each shape has some specific emotional meaning that we may not always be aware of. Very often, what we feel happens unconsciously based on our perception of the world and past experiences. Also, a big part of it comes from nature, for instance, animals with exposed weapons like sharp teeth, horns, etc. are considered dangerous. Angular objects can usually hurt us or evoke a feeling of threat, while other shapes with smoother features seem to be more approachable and friendly.
It’s easy to show these emotional connections when using a lot of shapes of the same kind in one composition. We can see a good example of this in character design and animated movies, where creators want us to scan the personality of the character fast. In order to do so, they usually use lots of triangles for villains and circles for good characters. But as this effect is sometimes too obvious or overused, you can trick the audience by swapping the shapes and matching the opposite features for them.
Usually, the curved lines and anything that reminds us of a circle is associated with soft, cute, friendly and approachable features – with harmony, energy, and perfection. Curves are pleasant to look at, they have a certain dynamic, movement, and volume that other shapes lack.
Illustrations by The Furrow
Straight lines, which we find in squares and rectangles, evoke the feeling of groundedness, stability, balance, order, structure. Illustrators often use them to show powerful, professional, masculine characters or environments. That being said, the domination of either verticals or horizontals can change the message.
Calmer and stable
More active and growing
From left to right, illustrations by Abbey Lossing and Alex Pasquarella
Triangles consist of diagonals which represent movement, direction, power, as well as stability or instability (reversed triangle). Triangles are dynamic and fast. The features that often accompany them are: threat, danger, sharpness, but also balance and energy. They too come in different forms, which you can see in the examples below.
Wider base adds stability and calmness
Sharper triangles feel dangerous
Reversed triangles look unstable
Illustration by James Gilleard
Of course, basic shapes need not be isolated from each other to communicate a certain emotion. ‘Balance’ is best achieved by combining them. That being said, a good tip is to limit the amount of dominant shapes to one or two, as this can influence the perception of balance. Additionally, unity and variety is key, as too much use of only one shape can feel hard to read (unless this is the intention).
Another important effect of combinations is the creation of contrast. This can make the object even more interesting. Spikes and curves, active and passive lines, good or bad characters – there are lots of possibilities for mixing features.
Illustration by James Gilleard
Why use shape language?
Shape language has huge power over the viewer as it can evoke certain emotions. Why not evoke the ones you are going for? But the good news? You are using shape language already! Every illustration contains the shapes we’ve talked about, however they are not always easy to read. That’s why I’d like to encourage you to use the language with more awareness and understanding. It can help you tell the story and communicate the message in a clear and easy way.
- Arnheim Rudolf - Art and Visual Perception
- Molly Bang - Picture This: How Pictures Work
- Own observations