Visual Design – Shapes (part 2)

Summary – Light creates tone & color, the basic building blocks of visual design. Tones & color, in turn, give rise to visual design’s primary elements – lines, shapes, textures & perspective. Previous posts in this series looked at lines. Now – on to shapes. This is part 2 of 3 – & expands greatly on part 1.

In a previous section we identified the symbols used in the language of visual design (shapes, lines, texture and perspective). In this section we’ll consider the shape.

In general terms a shape is any open or closed form such as a circle, square, or isosceles triangle. Each of these three shapes, in turn, has derivative forms such as ovals, rectangles and right triangles  – and so on. “Organic” shapes (as found in the real world) may only approximate these geometric models, but the human cognitive system recognizes them as shapes and reacts to them just the same.

Shapes are perhaps the most fundamental of the symbols used in visual design. Different shapes have different effects in terms of viewer impact. Factors such as a shape’s form, size, color, angle and placement each affect an image’s message. Squares suggest stability. Triangles are dynamic, suggest action and can direct a viewer’s eye. Circles can be the most powerful shape in terms of capturing viewer’s attention. An important fact to recognize is that symbols and their arrangement is culturally dependent.

The placement, arrangement and ordering of symbols (visual grammar) will be “read” differently by members of different cultures. Black and white (somber and innocent) in one culture may have just the opposite interpretation in another. The order in which symbols are arranged will be “read” differently in a culture where written language is read from left to right as opposed to one where it’s from right to left (or vertical) – “Man Bites Dog” vs. “Dog Bites Man”. Remember – it’s the viewer (and not you) who has the final say in what your image means. Your role ends with being as clear and unambiguous as possible in regards to your meaning.

We will consider visual grammar after completing our review of the symbols of visual design. Just keep in mind, as we review shapes and other symbols, that how these symbols are used determines the message conveyed by the image.


Shapes are used to:

  • Present information
  • Convey different ideas
  • Create movement, texture, and depth
  • Elicit mood and emotion
  • Create and emphasize entry points and areas of interest
  • Lead the eye through the image


Illustrated below are examples of shapes – both geometric and organic. The basic form, such as circle, is at the left of a row. Derivatives of the basic continue along the row. Several things to note (some of which begin to touch on grammar) –

  • The size makes a difference
  • Color makes a difference
  • Color can trump size in terms of catching the viewer’s eye. Do you see what I mean (pun intended)?
    • This is an illustration of Proportion and Dominance (an important grammar consideration). Even though an object is small in proportion to the overall picture space, it can still dominate the image in terms of capturing and holding the viewer’s eye.
    • This can be good or bad. It’s bad when the thing that dominates is not the subject and, in fact, detracts from the subject – such as a blown out highlight in the background. Be aware.
  • Angle makes a difference
    • Horizontal – at rest
    • Vertical – position of strength
    • Oblique – dynamic or tension
    • Consider the two adjacent triangles in the example – one pointing up and one down. Which one do you feel sends a message of “stability” and which creates tension?

  • The frame of the image is extremely important
    • It can form one or more sides of a shape to form triangles and rectangles (whether you intended it or not)
    • Shapes which are cut off by the frame (upper right circle) are still recognized for what they are. Your mind completes the shape.
  • Shapes don’t have to be continuous. Your mind “connects the dots” (e.g., the gray discrete shapes near the center are recognized and viewed as a rectangle even though they are not connected). This can be used to advantage (or disadvantage if you’re not cognizant of this type of situation when making an image).
  • Shapes “point”. The obvious case is the triangle, but is also true with shapes such as ovals and rectangles. Be certain they’re “pointing” and leading the viewer’s eye toward your subject and not out of the frame.
  • Lots to think about.


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