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Rounded or Sharp-Corner Buttons?

Rounded-corner buttons or sharp-corner buttons?
Circular logo or triangular logo?
Arial or Helvetica Neue?

Does it really matter?

Many times, designers and brand owners are faced with seemingly trivial questions like these. And many times, we question whether these minuscule decisions even matter at all to the users or the business.

What if I tell you that, subconsciously, they definitely have an effect on the human psyche?

Let’s play a quick game

I’m gonna show you two words and two shapes. You’ll have to quickly pair a word to a shape that you think is the best match.

Ready?

3…

2…

1…

Go!

These are the exact images of shapes and words used in many Bouba/Kiki experiments.

What was your answer?

If you paired “Bouba” with the curvy shape and “Kiki” with the jagged shape, then you have the same answer as over 95% of the people across all ages, cultures, and languages.

This is a well-researched psychological effect called the Bouba/Kiki effect.

The Bouba/Kiki Effect—i.e., how the human brain attaches abstract meanings to visual shapes and speech sounds in a consistent way

The Bouba/Kiki Effect also applies to people’s names. Research done by Sidhu and Pexman showed that names with “round” consonants such as Molly were consistently paired with round silhouettes, and names with “sharp” consonants such as Kate with sharp silhouettes.

Here’s another interesting fact: this effect extends to personality traits. People will link metaphorically “round” adjectives like easygoing with “round names”; and metaphorically “sharp” adjectives like determined with “sharp names.”

Examples of the exact images, names, and adjectives used in Sidhu and Pexman’s study.

Starting to sound familiar?

If you’re a brand identity designer, you’re likely skilled at pairing brand attribute keywords (like “passionate” or “sincere”) with visual elements that represent those words. You may often think of a brand as a person—what kind of values, personality, and look would they have? You’d then design an image that best represents this character that is a brand.

Let’s explore this further: if designing a brand is kind of like designing a character, then we might be able to improve our brand design by understanding actual character design.

Brand Design = Character Design

What is a character?

A character is essentially a group of abstract personality traits, beliefs, and motivations tied to a visual symbol that is their physical appearance — the same way attributes are tied to a brand.

Therefore, character design, like brand identity design, is a solution to the problem: how do we best express attributes through visual elements?

What makes a character well-designed?

Well-designed characters can tell us a lot about who they are by simply looking at them. Good character designers incorporate visual pattern language that helps us infer information about the character in a split second, similar to the Bouba/Kiki Effect.

Well-designed characters can be reduced to fundamental shapes (box, circle, and triangle), while still conveying a lot of personalities. Depending on the shape, particular characteristics are accentuated.

A well-done breakdown of Overwatch characters into basic shapes by the artist Tato.

Take a look at these groups of characters below. What personality traits would you associate with them?

What do boxy characters feel like?
What about round characters?
And triangular characters?

Boxy characters are commonly seen as reliable, uniform, traditional, and professional.

Round characters are commonly seen as charismatic, endearing, harmless, and friendly.

Triangular characters are commonly seen as cunning, dynamic, and competent. Downward pointing triangle is especially aggressive and evil (used in many cartoon villains).

You can even draw the same character with different basic shapes and instantly give them distinct personalities:

Character design by Geoff Wheeler

What about these two characters below? They both have boxy silhouettes, with squared shoulders and a huge, muscular body. But the guy on the left feels like a gentle giant, while the one on the right feels like he’s gonna beat you up any minute now, doesn’t he?

Takeo from Ore Monogatari v.s. Toguro from Yu Yu Hakusho (ref: What makes a good character design? by Super Eyepatch Wolf)

The difference between them — as you probably already noticed — is in the lines. The left character is drawn with curvy, smooth lines, and the left with very jagged, sharp edges.

Think back to the Bouba/Kiki Effect and how visual shapes can immediately affect the qualities we associate with these characters. Your users are experiencing the same with your brand’s visual design—subconsciously shaping their overall impression of your brand in a matter of seconds.

How is this relevant to brand or UI/UX design?

Design elements like logos and fonts can also be reduced to basic shapes and lines, subliminally conveying different personalities to the audience.

Both iconic and wordmark logos are made of basic shapes.

If you look closely, the same can be observed with typefaces:

Examples of three different fonts with distinctive basic shapes and lines.
  • Hudson NY has many sharp-corner, tall rectangles—giving off the same rigid and reliable feeling as boxy characters.
  • Filson Soft feels more friendly because of its round corners and circular counters (the white space inside alphabets like p and d).
  • Streetbrush seems fast-paced and aggressive because of jagged, diagonal lines with pointy ends.

Design with purpose

With the knowledge of how simple shapes can affect perception, you can design with a purpose—with every little visual element adding up to a congruent, distinctive brand personality that users perceive subconsciously.

So, shall we go with rounded or sharp-corner buttons? 😉

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Taime Koe

Taime Koe

CEO @ sixatomic.com / We pioneer AI-driven apparel manufacturing solutions / Ex-Psych Researcher & UX Strategist

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