Basic forms and their meaning in logo design

To understand how a brand works visually, it’s best to break it down and examine it at atomic level. In UI (user interface) design we have been using the Atomic Design method for quite some time. Here we break down the UI elements to as small units as possible: to absolutely basic parts that have no meaning if taken further apart, like a text field, a card or a button (as an example, check out the UI styleguide created for OTP Bank). We build atoms together to form molecules, which can be developed into organisms.

In branding there is no practical need for this break-down process, what we should consider is the message of the visual details of the building blocks and whether the overall image when these elements are put together strengthens or weakens this message. Let’s take a perfect example:

Slash in a square

The Deutsche Bank logo designed by Anton Stankowsky is one of my favorites. I think a lot of people love its ultimate simplicity. It hasn’t changed since 1974. The only change came in 2010, since then the logo can be used independently, without the typography, but the graphic image has been the same for 45 (!) years. The form is extremely simple, yet it conveys meaningful messages:

  • the square frame: security, stability and control, 
  • the ‘slash’: consistent growth and development.

If you read it in a brief, it might seem contradictory to combine these two messages in one sign, but here it works, with brilliant simplicity. Nothing can be taken from the graphic image, it can’t be made any more simple without losing the message. This is a principle we should always keep to in the design process, as this is what you need for a design that is timeless and breaks free from fashion.

The meaning and effects of basic forms have been explored by many and in many ways, just think about Kandinsky in the Bauhaus or the Hungarian painter János Fajó. Let’s take a look at basic forms and their meaning.🧐

Basic forms and their meaning

Square, quadrilateral

All sides have equal length and all angles are equal, and as a result it has a calm, steady, static, heavy, self-enclosed and boring effect. If you place a square on its vertex, it will be unsteady and it will look as if it is about to fall.

Whether on their longer or shorter side, rectangles have a steady, yet more active effect than squares. Parallelograms (opposite sides are of equal length, opposite angles are equal) have a much more dynamic and active effect.

Triangle

From the basic forms, the triangle is the one that seems the most active. It can be an arrowhead pointing in a direction, but with an obtuse angle it can also have a calm effect. Other visual messages: active, dynamic, pointed, hard.

Circle

A circle has no starting point and has no end, it is a symbol of infinity. There is much less tension in it than in a square or a triangle. It doesn’t point in a direction, so its message is that it is calm, harmonious, self-enclosed, infinite, soft and safe.

Line

Logos can have all kinds of lines. Lines have a direction. In the western world, we read from left to right, and this is how we interpret lines as well. A line can have a positive or a negative meaning, depending on whether it has an upward or a downward direction, whether it ascends from left to right or from right to left.

You see? I see.

These forms express emotions and messages, they have an effect, and the viewer will either feel this or not, eventually. This is a two-fold situation: on the one hand, the designer has some intention, and, on the other hand, the recipient has some impression. A graphic image will work well if it has the intended effect on most recipients.

Let’s see the study

The results presented here are from a 2005 psychology study and experiment, where 89 people were asked to assess forms according to their force and activity. 

The results are presented in a 2D coordinate system, where the horizontal axis represents activity and the vertical axis represents force. 

In summary, the figure shows that quadrilateral, pointed and round forms cover different areas in the semantic space. Acute-angled triangles and stars were considered forceful and active, and the five-pointed star has a higher value than the equilateral triangle in both dimensions. Quadrilaterals are forceful but passive, oval forms are weak and passive, here the regular circle is the least passive and least weak. The figure suggests that the sharpest contrast is between the kidney-shape and the star.

Summary

In visual branding, it is best if there is a concept behind every detail and every graphic solution. If you have a concept, if you know what you goal is and what you want to say, you can find the suitable graphic tools and building blocks for it. It will be easier if you know what messages the specific building blocks convey. I hope this piece was helpful.

As they have a great effect on forms, next time I’ll discuss colors. ✌️

The post is based on the course materials of the University of Design Schwäbisch Gmünd. Hero image is taken from the course material.

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Peter Sher
Studied Architecture, started running his own design studio, called zwoelf. With 20+ years experience, laying the fundaments of brands and building their visual.

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