Presentation, Organization, Communication 2 - Elements: Shape

Shape1. the quality of a distinct object or body in having an external surface or outline of specific form or figure.

2. something seen in outline, as in silhouette: A vague shape appeared through the mist.

Creating a logo that must work in black and white is dated thinking, something that is no longer a requirement. I mean, how many faxes have you sent out this year? It is however still good practice, for any commercial design, to work in black and white because shape is the first thing that is read by our brains. If your shapes are readable in black and white, you probably have a solid design.

Shape is 2-dimensional; we add light/shadow, value, and color to shape to make it take form, which is (or appearing to be) 3-dimensional, having volume and mass. In design there are 3 types of shapes: Geometric (square, rectangle, diamond, triangle, circle, etc.), Organic (found in nature), and Abstract. Shape can be in either positive or negative space.

Shapes are the basic building blocks of any design, and each kind can be used to communicate a specific feeling, action, or mood. Shapes can be just as emotional as color and have played a significant role in religions as we see in Sacred Geometry (perhaps a future post on this). When looking to communicate a message with shape, heres how I refer to them.

Circle – perfection, integrity, eternal, whole, sun/earth/moon, graceful, protection, completion.

Triangle – strength (strongest geometrical shape), 3, past/present/future, direction, stability, aggression, male (point up), female (point down).

Square/Rectangle – stability, calmness, honesty, order, security, equality, simplicity, masculine. Vertically they are strong and powerful, horizontally they are peaceful.

Spirals – chaos, creativity, youth, growth, transformation, energy,

Organic – nature, feminine, birth, fertility, life, earth, elegance.

Geometric Shapes in Use.

The geometric shapes are usually easy to work with. You can do an entire design out of the basic shapes alone.

The Dallas Cowboys have a logo that is a single closed shape. It is simplicity at its finest showing that some times, all you need is 1 shape and 1 color. The Pittsburgh Steelers logo is very similar, using only a circle and 3 diamonds.

Heres another logo by Logomotive built entirely out of simple shapes which form a visual double entendre.

This Bauhaus styled poster is a beautiful tribute to the German school which taught a variety of arts from 1919 to 1933, and made a huge impact on European and American design. The poster is made up entirely of solid geometric shapes, something that is common in modern design still. The font 'Bauhaus' used through out here is a geometric sans-serif built from circles and rectangles.

South Park characters and environments are made up of almost entirely of the basic shapes.

You can also use shapes in design to construct a foundation of a form or figure. Leonardo Da Vinci loved triangles and you can see here he paints Jesus within a triangle. Note the position of head and hands. This is something also easily seen in his Madonna of the Rocks and Mona Lisa paintings. The Last Supper is loaded with triangles and the number 3. The composition being divided up into 3rds, 3 walls, 3 windows on the back wall, and every “group” with 3 disciples. 

Organic Shapes in use

Organic shapes come from nature. They are leafs, flowers, bones, trees, feathers, rocks, clouds, etc. They often are free flowing and have a nice movement and direction to them. Combining organic and geometric shapes can create interesting contrast, blending nature with man made things, like a vine growing on a pillar.

Here the designer is using multiple organic shapes; a skull and bird silhouettes.

the Degal label takes on the shape of a leaf. Leaf shapes were hugely popular in design in the early 21st century.

I like to think of animal patterns as organic shapes as well. If it comes from nature, then its not abstract.

Olly Moss is a master with shape and figure-ground relationship. In this poster he uses multiple organic shapes of rocks and the sun to create another organic shape, a skull.

Abstract Shapes in Use

These shapes are not found in the real world and have a bit of a randomness quality to them, like an ink blot. The line between abstract and organic shapes can sometimes be blurry though. A lot of artist’s style comes from slightly altering a truly organic shape into something that is unique. Think of how many different types of skulls you’ve seen drawn. There are many logos that are built from abstract shapes but create something that reads organic as an animal or person (Buffalo Bills logo). We can also take simple shapes and form an abstract image (Radiation icon or Cross).

The Bills logo, an abstract rendering of a buffalo in motion

This poster by Federico Mancosu is made of just shape and color but it is easily readable as a single image, and tells a story. The 2 large shapes areas, a red square and black rectangle, are in proportion to the Golden Ratio and has a visual feeling that reflects the mood of the song perfectly. This is one of my favorite pieces of design i've ever seen.

Van Gogh created a twisted reality here spirals and abstract rendering of nature

Here's an image that is built of few abstract shapes, but again, easily a readable image.

This is where the line between organic and abstract gets a bit blurry. You could make a case for either here, but the message is straight forward and very clever.

Again going back to the master, Olly Moss, where he uses the silhouettes of Cloud City and Boba Fett together to form Fett’s figure. There are also nicely rendered organic shapes within.

All Together, Now

Using all 3 types of shapes in a single design can be interesting. In this poster we see a balance of geometric (rectangles, stars) organic (roses, skulls) and abstract. I count the guns as abstract because they are man made; not existing in nature and much more complex that the basic geometrics.

Valarie Jar’sNational Park logos might be my favorite example ever of using all 3 different types of shapes. She uses abstract shapes within the geometric silhouettes to create form of those objects.

Before there was Olly Moss, there was Saul Bass. Bass made his career of using interesting shapes in his designs. Pictures within type, within simple shapes, forming shapes with blocks of text; he did it before just about anyone else. His work should be studied by every graphic designer. He was a Godfather of modern design.

Further Reading

SitePoint, Elements of Design: Shape
VanSeoDesign, The Meaning of Shapes