Critical Analysis

Neal, F. B. and Russ, John C. (2017): ‘The Meaning(s) of Shape’ in Measuring Shape. CRC Press, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group. Florida, USA.

Introduction

During the Research and Enquiry module I have studied the broader connotations of my keyword geometric. This keyword relates specifically to graphic design and art, but to better understand the use of geometric shapes in design I have examined various subjects where geometry plays a role. My methodology was to select seemingly unconnected topics and locate the common thread. These topics ranged from detailed fields of study such as architecture, textiles, nature and education to shapes in their most basic and raw form within mathematics and computing.

During this phase of my reading I encountered the book Measuring Shape by F. Brent Neal and John C. Russ, a practical handbook for shape measurement. I was particularly keen to read this resource when I found out that John C. Russ has years of experience in image processing and analysis. I believed that the authors might bring to light new ideas and perspectives I had not considered or encountered so far in my research.

My analysis is centered around a section in the chapter ‘The Meaning of Shape(s)’ where the authors explore and discuss the many different ways of describing shapes. This relates heavily to my experiments in my Practice 1 assignment and also to my work as a freelance graphic designer.

Analysis

In Measuring Shape, F. Brent Neal and John C. Russ argue that if you describe a shape in basic language to another person, you are relying on that person to already have a mental picture of the shape in question. Taking this idea further, they also suggest that you are also relying heavily on the person having a similar enough mental picture to yours to adequately understand what you are describing. This is a common problem when designing graphics for a client, particularly in logo design: everyone shares common visual knowledge of basic shapes but to each individual those shapes can hold different meanings, altering the perception of them, and thus altering the perception of a logo or brand.

Neal and Russ go on to highlight how more abstract or complex shapes, in their example the shape of a fish, might share common elements, but the problem lies in the fact that there are so many different types of fish in the sea that most people will picture something different from what you are describing, leading to misrepresentation.

While reading widely for my keyword I came to understand that geometric shapes hold their own form of language and give visual clues built from common connections people share, usually enhanced by media and developing trends. Shapes can symbolise an idea or attitude, express a mood or theme, and influence a person’s reaction (Peate, Stephen. 2018). An example of this is the tendency for corporate brands to use a square or a triangular logo. Both shapes represent strength, solidity and growth and are intended to inspire trust. This subliminal messaging is only reinforced as more and more companies follow suit. The same could be said for natural, holistic or spiritual brands, who tend to gravitate towards softer, more fluid and inclusive shapes like circles and swirls, indicating a gentle approachability. This depends heavily on people sharing the same visual language, and there is always room for misinterpretation and confusion. Neal and Russ argue that a simple description such as “round” can mean different things: the shape of a circle, or a three-dimensional sphere, or a cylinder, or an object that has rounded aspects but could not be called a circle. This led me to think about clarity in describing an object and how we rely on visual representations to speak to one another every day, across many different media.

The common language of shapes is important to my work as a freelancer because I have in the past created logos for clients and attempted to create a logo for myself numerous times. Experiments with developing my own unique brand have been unsuccessful up until recently. Measuring Shape reinforced my previous experiences with adequately using shape to describe something—in my case, my business and my work. Choosing a visual language is complex; boiling down a person, a company or a concept into a shape is also far more difficult than it seems on the outset.

Another interesting point that Neal and Russ raise is how human vision is comparative and does not rely on measurement. We identify the similarity between objects by mentally superimposing one object onto the other and drawing our conclusions. However, they also argue that we have a tendency to distort the objects to better fit our needs—in this case, to make them more similar if we are looking for a connection. This is an idea I had not considered before: that when we look at and judge shapes, we cannot be entirely objective or accurate unless we are physically measuring them.

Neal and Russ continue by arguing that we identify many objects in our day to day lives based on remembered shapes, and we recall these remembered shapes much faster if they have names associated with them. This supports shape theory in logo and brand design and helps to explain why some shapes are preferable for certain messages. I would add that the mental and emotional connections we make to shapes depends on how we associate with other objects of a similar shape. For example, the logarithmic spiral of a snail shell is a recognisable geometric shape, and when viewing a spiral staircase from the top we could make the mental connection between the two shapes and have a reaction if we are squeamish about the former.

Conclusion

Neal and Russ draw attention to how easy it is to misrepresent and misinterpret shapes in abstract applications and have led me to think more carefully about how I use and describe shapes in my own work. There are numerous ways of deciphering meaning from shapes and numerous ways that they connect to one another. Using geometric design to translate message sounds simple, but ultimately even basic shapes are subjective, and you cannot guarantee as a designer or artist that your work will be perceived the same way person to person or that your intended message will come across clearly.

References

Neal, F. B. and Russ, John C. (2017): ‘The Meaning(s) of Shape’ in Measuring Shape. CRC Press, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group. Florida, USA.

Peate, Stephen (2018): Getting Your Brand in Shape: The Psychology of Logo Shapes. (Online source: http://fabrikbrands.com/the-psychology-of-logo-shapes/)

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