Visual Design Symbols – Shapes

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.

Let’s look a some real world examples that illustrate shapes. The shapes in most images may not be so obvious as the examples but these serve the purpose of making some points about shapes. Click on any image to enlarge it.
#1 – The circle is a powerful shape. This image shows an obvious large circle. It also has many smaller circles – some are all green and some are warmer colored circles inside the small green ones. Note that a shape can contain other shapes within itself – or be formed by a combination of other shapes. The smaller circles within the large circle create a texture (another visual design symbol to be covered later). Textures do not exist on a two dimensional surface – just the illusion of one. The illusion is created by some combination of shapes and lines.

#2 – This is an variation of #1. Although the circle is cut off by a corner of the frame, our mind still recognizes it as a circle. As a side note – the circle is located in the lower left part of the frame. This is the area most favored by our visual system. We tend to start there and return there to rest the eye. (Also, things that start near the lower left and proceed toward the upper right are viewed as “positive” statements.) Place the “circle” in either of the other four corners and ask yourself if your feelings about the “message” changes.

#3. This simply illustrates that an object can depart pretty far from its idealized shape and still be recognized for what it represents. The reason for making this point is that although this is, and always will be, a water lily and not a circle – its psychological impact on the viewer is similar to that of a circle.

#4. Three circles – yes. But combined they form a fourth shape – a soft oblique curved shape extending from the lower left to the upper right. (See the note on upward left to right movement in #2 above).

#5. A circle derivative. This oval is placed on the oblique which is more pleasing than vertical or horizontal. Further, although a single circle doesn’t suggest movement or directionality (that took multiple circles as in #4) a single oval can – especially when placed on the oblique. Which direction is this poppy bud moving your eye?

#6. What have we here? If you said three rectangles you’re right. Note the important role played by the frame. It forms three sides of the upper and lower rectangles and two of the middle. Big deal you say. So what?  First – You need to recognize that the frame is every bit as important in creating visual design symbols as are real objects in your scene. Further, you have almost total control over the size and placement of these “virtual shapes”. In this example we can control whether there are one, two or three rectangles as well as the relative size of each as compared to the others, and their vertical placement in the frame. This control is exerted primarily by lens focal length, camera height, and camera angle (tipped up/down/left right) as well as horizontal versus vertical orientation. Lot & lots of design choices to be made for just this simplest of landscapes – and each choice tells a different story.
Do you see that a two rectangle version of this need not include the water?? Yes, the water and sky version is obvious. Water and sand are also obvious. What happens when you get flat on the ground with your camera? The height of the water rectangle, proportional to sand and sky, gets smaller & smaller as the camera gets lower & lower. Stop taking pictures with the camera always at eye level.

#7 – Two rectangles. The design decision was where to place the horizon (how large to make each rectangle?).  The story here is mostly about the sunrise and clouds and not about Lake Michigan except as context. A very simple image – two textured rectangles with contrasting warm and cool colors.

#8 – Two triangles, each with two sides formed by the image frame. Since this image is fairly abstract, it could be rotated and flipped without much harm. It wasn’t, but if the actual scene had been as shown but flipped horizontally then I most likely would have flipped it to the way it’s shown here – upward left to right (stated by those who study visual psychology, not me) really works for me to the point that I may over use it.

#9 – Here we have two rectangles again as in #7. This time there’s a twist – the lower rectangle is made up of two triangles as in #8. This adds a visual dynamic of movement which is missing in #7. Which, if either, appear more restful and calming to you – #7 or #9?

#10 – This image made up of lines, rectangles, a triangle, texture and perspective (a visual design symbol “full house”). It was done as an “academic exercise”. I was forcing myself to ignore “reality” and to focus (another bad pun) solely on visual design symbols – forcing myself to see photographically and to put the names of the objects (bricks, torn wallpaper, etc.) out of my mind.

A variation on the exercise is to do this in black and white thus removing the possible distractions of color. The right hand image was rotated for display purposes but  since it’s all about shapes (and not a door, chimney, flue cover, wall) no real harm was done.

Exercise – make images along the lines of these last two. Force yourself to see visual design symbols and try to forget what is actually before your eyes. Try making the same symbols different sizes (focal length and distance) from one image to another. And – try placing the symbols in different locations within the frame. Ask yourself how the different sizes and placements change the “feel”. Also, use the frame to create shapes. Don’t just do this for a few minutes. Stick with it long enough to make at least 25 images – and then do it again each day for several days.
Freeman Patterson is the master of photographic visual design. If you are at all serious about improving your images buy Photography and the Art of Seeing and Photographing the World Around You.

0 thoughts on “Visual Design Symbols – Shapes”

  1. I assume you’re referring to the grayed out TOC entries under the Composition heading. Got sidetracked back then and never got back on track. Something for the future.

  2. thanks for suggesting a wonderful exercise ……your other posts on lines, shapes, textures and principles of visual design are missing…?

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