Unless you have been living under a gigantic rock, you must have heard about or participated in the ongoing Squid Game frenzy!
The widely popular Korean thriller on Netflix with a racy plot, fan theories, and bizarre characters is a lot to take in. And one of the things that baffled me, and probably, fellow viewers are the shapes that constantly kept appearing throughout the series.
Square. Circle. Triangle.
The show’s title, visiting cards, the games, and masks of the staff members – these shapes are everywhere. For the staff though, the shapes painted on their masks align with their hierarchy. It starts with a circle, followed by the triangle, and finally, the square.
Reportedly, the shapes used throughout the dark drama are derived from the Korean alphabet (written in Hangul). The circle, triangle, and square represent the letter “O,” “J,” and “M,” respectively, forming “OJM” – these are also the initials of the squid game or Ojingeo Geim.
Mystery solved? Well, yes, for the show at least.
Shapes are also central to graphic and UI UX design. Let’s dive deep to decode their true meaning, which by the way, are more than one!
Psychology of shapes
The building blocks of visual content, shapes have been used since time immemorial to impact viewers. The cave paintings in Cueva de la Pileta, for instance, have complex Pectiform shapes. These paintings appear to be an extension of combs with extending tooth lingering between simple lines and abstract.
What the ancient folks were trying to tell us remains a mystery. But that’s not the case with modern design, where shapes speak a universal language.
A study reported through the Journal of Consumer Research discovered that the most fundamental element of a logo, which is its shape, is enough to influence how people perceive values, products, and services.
Ergo, shapes are powerful and define how your users will respond emotionally. With psychological and symbolic meanings attached, they can be used to reinforce messaging across various design projects.
Primary categories of shapes and the psychology behind them
Shapes can be categorized into simple versus compound. Simple shapes are also called Primitives and form the foundation of the geometric forms and their 3D variants. Square, circle, triangle, rectangle, diamond, ovals, cube, cylinder, spheres, and cones are all included in this category. Compound shapes, on the other hand, are complex shapes constructed from simple ones. The Audi logo perfectly implements simple shapes, while Spotify and Xbox logos constitute several shapes.
Shapes are also categorized as organic versus inorganic. A tree stump, the outline of a hill, leaves, rocks, flowers, or paths created by rivers fit into the first category. These shapes are less symmetrical, are curvier, and include looser lines. Inorganic forms are more rigid, geometrical, and tilt towards man-made structures like gadgets or buildings. Toblerone and Shell are two brands that include organic shapes in their logos.
Abstract versus non-abstract is the third main categorization for shapes. While abstract shapes are more geometric and compound, the non-abstract ones tend to be just symbolic references. Abstract shapes are also based on a pre-existing cultural knowledge or some context, such as the men/women abstract shapes outside restrooms. Some immediately recognizable logos with abstract forms are the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Puma, Nike, Twitter, and Apple.
Square shapes are familiar to the eye and form the base of several designs. Games like Jenga and Lego, buildings like skyscrapers, depict squares and denote firmness, strength, and reliability. As the shapes are straight and formed from lines and angles, we associate them with structure and order.
Microsoft, Adobe, Instagram, and American Express are some of the top brands with a square-shaped brand logo.
Circles act almost the opposite of squares. The lack of sharp edges makes circular designs appear friendlier and soft on the eyes. Does that mean there is no seriousness to the shape? The answer is no. Circular shapes can be weaved into elegant concepts like corporate logos and represent connection and community.
Also, if you were to look at some real-life examples of merry-go-rounds, wheels, and balls, the shape represents movement. In nature, the most prominent examples of perfect circles are the sun and the moon, giving them a sacred meaning.
Additionally, ellipses point to support and innovations. Toyota, Medium are two fantastic examples of the same, which portray these sentiments through their brand logos.
Notable brands such as Pepsi, NASA, MasterCard, Starbucks, and Target all have circular logos.
And we lost the count of desktop icons and app icons, which are circular in nature.
Triangles tend to look and feel extra sharp due to their pointed corners. Think of the edge of a sword or a sharp tooth, which both imply danger. Triangles have been used for warning signs to denote action, aggression, and directional context. Sometimes, triangles are also related to divinity, the finest example being the pyramids and ziggurats. Dynamism, innovation, and improvement are other meanings we can decipher from this shape, which finds massive popularity among tech companies.
Adidas has a triangle-shaped logo, which lends it a progressive, action-inspiring look and feel. Likewise, the HSBC logo comprises several triangles, giving it an edgy, neat look.
Spirals denote numerous natural forms such as fossils, ferns, shells, galaxies, cyclones, etc. These include growth, seasons, circles of life, and evolution in general. They also represent fertility, life and offer a feminine look and feel. Interestingly, spirals can move in either clockwise or anticlockwise directions. From a cultural standpoint, spiral shapes allude to mystery.
One of the best examples of spiral shape is the Koru, which is based on the appearance of a new unfurling silver fern frond. The symbol is integral in Māori art, carvings and tattoos.
Brands with a spiral logo include – Sun Microsystems, NVIDIA, and Hilton.
Visual perception takes precedence in evoking reactions and responses from the target audience and shapes help brands do precisely that. Without understanding their importance and ignoring the underlying meanings of shapes (or, for that matter, other elements like color and typeface), you’ll risk missing out on making a Squid Game-like impact!