OC’s Guide to Visual Elements, Part 2: Shape


by Erin Nolan

shape in wild

Have you ever stopped to think about shapes? If you’re like most people, probably not. Shapes are something that are often overlooked. Sure, some geometric shapes have specific names that we have to learn in preschool, such as a triangle, a circle, or a rhombicosidodecahedron. And yes, that’s a real thing. Look it up and impress all your family and friends! But for real, take a minute to look around. How many shapes can you find?

You are going to look at everything differently after reading below. Steady yourself ‘cause shape is about to rock your world. But first, cue the old-timey music and read the following definition in your best radio voice:

Shape is defined as a two-dimensional, enclosed area of space which shows height and width (but no depth) and is viewed as an outline, as in a silhouette.

In order to have a shape, there needs to be a defining edge. An edge is made through use of contrast. Contrast shows differences. It could be any difference: color, texture, lighting, anything. For example, the horizon line is a contrast between the ground and the sky. Some color combinations are strongly contrasting while others are barely there. Some create an edge with a difference in intensity. Intensity is the level of saturation in a color. Edges can also be hard, such as those found in a machined aluminum cube, or they can be soft, like the diffused shadow of leaves on a hazy afternoon.

geometric shape

But wait! There’s more!

Now that shape has been defined, we need to talk about its qualities. All of the above elements can describe a shape. In addition, there are other qualities such as transparency, reflectivity, or opacity. Envision the rectangular glass of a window. It is transparent, yet it also reflects its environment like a mirror. The blinds that cover the window are opaque, meaning it is solid and no background images are visible through this shape.

Shape can be biomorphic (organic) or geometric. The natural world does not have sharp geometrics or perfectly straight lines, so a river stone or a cloud or waves on a lake would be made of biomorphic shapes. This type of shape is perceived as welcoming and gentle. There are exceptions of course, but primarily it suggests a restful sensibility.

organic shape

Geometrics are also perceived in a specific way. Squares and rectangles portray strength and stability due to their base weight. Circles and ellipses represent continuous, even, unending movement. Triangles point directionally, providing eye movement within a composition. Inverted triangles create a sense of imbalance or tension because the weight is at the top and the viewer is waiting for the triangle to fall.

All shapes convey a feeling. Artists use shape, among other visual elements, to control how the viewer relates to composition within their artwork.

Shape may be representational. A triangle resting on top of a horizontal rectangle serves as a house. Separate the two shapes and now they are abstract, without meaning. Look at all the shapes that make up this building:

church shape

Because shapes are formed by perceived edges, there are optical illusions that create shapes where there are actually none. Remember the image where there are two profiles facing one another? What do you see? The profiles or the cup between them? In this example the profiles are positive space—they represent a solid object. The vase, however, is a negative shape—the space between two or more positive shapes. It is an empty space that our mind fills in.

And today only, we’ll throw in an bonus quality of shape!

Objects shown as shapes change depending on where it is in relation to the viewer. This is called perspective. A dinner plate is round. We know it’s round. Place it on a table, walk some distance away, and look at the plate. Voila! Magic! The plate is now an ellipse! When a child draws a table set for dinner, they might draw the table legs in profile, but the dishes are drawn circular because that is the most familiar form to them. Hold your phone out at arm’s length. Now tilt the phone and watch as the edges change its outline. Sometimes a shape has to be altered in order for it to look realistic when drawn.

perspective shape

Now, look around the room again. Does anything look different to you? Do you see more shapes? Does color or opacity or perspective reveal more than you saw before? Pay attention to shape, and you’re one step closer to seeing the world like a designer.

If you need help remembering all these qualities of shape, we’ve made this handy infographic:

shape infographic

Stay tuned for the next visual element in our series: color.

Miss the first entry? Check it out here: OC’s Guide to Visual Elements, Part 1: Line