When we give a straight line not only length, but also breadth, we get the simplest of all shapes: a rectangle. But that’s a bit boring, so it might be wise to extend our definition of shape to: a shape is any area enclosed by lines. A square is the result of four lines closing off an area, while circles are the result of one large, sweeping curve closing itself. Again, these lines don’t necessarily need to be drawn, but can also be implied.
Whereas a point had zero dimensions, and a line had one (length), shapes have two: width and height. Similarly, whereas the line had one important property we could change to alter its character (line quality), we now have two properties to change: line and fill. Other words for line are stroke, outline or border.
For example, shapes can be transparent but have a solid border, or they can be filled with texture but have no visible outline. This means that shapes can be much more complex and attention-grabbing than lines or points, but it also means they have similar characteristics; flat and horizontal shapes are stable, while vertical and diagonal shapes are more active. Triangles point towards something and imply motion, while circles are static and peaceful.
In general, a line and fill that don’t go together well will never result in good design.
While our definition of shape is already quite broad, you should try to understand it in an even broader sense. In typography, for example, a field of text is also a plane (built from points and lines). Even though letters are very complex lines, and enclose complex shapes themselves, they – combined together – form a single texture that fills a shape.
All the shapes you’ll ever create, will be created out of certain basic shapes, which are the triangle, square and circle. No matter how complex, any shape can be derived from those in some way or another. I’ll therefore only look in depth at the properties of the basic shapes, which you can then easily transfer to any composition. Another advantage that comes from looking at shapes this way, is that you learn to simplify complex shapes, and simpler is always better in the world of design.
Three Types of Shapes
In general, a shape is either geometrical, organic or random. To which group they belong determines their inherent message and feeling. A soft, curvilinear shape may appear warm and welcoming, whereas a sharp, angular shape may appear cold and threatening.
Based on mathematical formulas. Their contours are always regularized, angular, or hard edges. We are most familiar with these shapes because they are the first shapes we tend to encounter when we are small children.
Straight lines and angular corners create rectilinear, geometric shapes. Circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles are geometric shapes that are crisp and mathematically precise with straight lines and consistent profiles. As you can see, circles and ellipses are also geometric shapes, because they are symmetric and defined by a formula (but we do call them soft geometric shapes).
Created or derived from nature and living organisms. These shapes are used more freely than geometric shapes, and are usually irregular and soft. A natural or organic shape can be regular, but that doesn’t happen too often. Too much irregularity, on the other hand, tends to convert designs into total chaos quite quickly.
Curvilinear lines typically create these amorphous, organic shapes. As you might have noticed, the three “basic shapes” from which you can built any shape are all part of the geometric group, so shouldn’t every possible shape be in that group? Well, sure you can create a flower or squirrel from only basic shapes, but that would take a lot of time and effort. Starting out with rounded shapes that support the feeling of a design is much easier.
Created from invention or imagination, no sense of order, resemblance, or relationship to the other categories of shape. They will borrow subtle characteristics from both categories, but whether these random shapes work out and what feeling they convey is up to you to determine. Random shapes are often heavily abstracted shapes, used for icons, branding or stylizations.
Positive & Negative Shapes
We’ve thus far only looked at adding a shape to the composition, but there’s an important process we need to be aware of. Whenever we add a shape, we actually add two shapes! When we place a rectangle in the centre of a page, all the empty space around it (with no shapes in it) is also a shape. Every time you add something to the composition, you create more and more complex empty spaces. The shapes you add yourself are what we call positive shapes, and the empty shapes that come with it are called negative shapes. The negative shape around an element is just as important as the positive shape of the element itself.
A better word for negative shape is simply space, as the very definition of that word is “that which has nothing in it”. This not exactly true for our negative shapes, as it often contains the background or elements that just don’t attract much attention. But, because our eye (at first glance) perceives the negative space as empty, space is a good word to use.
Why then, should we be interested in these spaces? More explanation will come later, but the main idea is that there are often more negative shapes in a composition than positive ones, and it’s just as important to make those look good. To some extent, this is accomplished automatically: organic circles will create soft and curved negative shapes, while geometrical squares create angular negative shapes. Nevertheless, consider negative shapes in your design and use them to your advantage by actively employing them as a design element.