The importance of shape language
It’s good to understand shape language basics when it comes to art. It sets a mood, it brings character and it drives onlookers to specific expectations. Shape language is deeply embedded in our DNA. It tells us about something that may potentially be a threat, or maybe a prey. Imagine wandering the Savannah looking for said prey, and you come across a rhino. We all know this is no good news. Their horns can pierce you in a fraction of a second! These horns are triangular and because of their shape they pose a danger. We see the same in canines and claws, thorns and more.
Back in the days when we still were hunter-gatherers, we even employed these shapes to create spears and arrows. They’re effective pierces, thus they pose danger and are associated with danger.
Now imagine a baby. What shape are they? Yes, they are very round, and generally considered to be very cute. We think the same of many animals which are relatively round and plump when they’re young. Thus we associate roundness with cuteness and being harmless. Try to injure yourself with a ball. Unless you step on it and send yourself flying, or you surrender that same ball to your narcissistic cousin who has to make a point, or spotted some pretty ladies on the beach: This ball won’t be injuring you.
These shapes however aren’t always as straightforward. We see different shapes in different species interchangeably, so these rules have to be taken with a grain of salt. Look at them as a rule of thumb, and draw from that.
The basics of shape language, primary shapes
The basics are fairly simple. There are squares, triangles, and circles that form the basic shapes. Of course, there are way more out there, but they can all be traced back to these three shapes. As a character or creature designer, it’s very important to communicate the purpose of said character (or creature) right from the bat. Understanding these basics will heavily impact your art and how it’s perceived.
Squares represent stability, dependability and masculinity. It’s also associated with honesty and solidity. Other associations are: Strong, stable, balanced, ordered, rest, equality, and peace. You might want to use square-ish shapes on:
- A father-figure
- A trusty mount
- The reliable bulky fighter in your team
- The confident business-owner
- Unknown creatures that have to come across as strong, balanced, reliable, or any of the other mentioned qualities of the square shapes
Some typical square-ish characters
Companies like Marvel, Pixar, and Disney, heavily employ shape language in their designs, but so do experienced artists. These are some examples of characters that are likely very familiar to you and have a square-ish stature.
- Pocahontas – Pocahontas, a powerful female character featuring a strong jawline but also rounded shapes.
- Tarzan – Tarzan
- Nearly every prince in the Disney universe
- Woody – Toy Story
- Alladin – Alladin
- Simba as an adult lion – Lion King – Note how as an adult he stil has many round shapes and lines in the smaller details, emphasizing his kind nature.
- Thanos – Marvel universe
Circles are associated with softness and cuteness, but also with power and innocence. They signify infinity, harmony, energy and power and unlike other shapes which have straight lines: The circle doesn’t, setting it apart and attracting attention. Other associations are integrity, perfection and completeness.
Some typical circle-ish characters
- Stitch – Lilo & Stitch
- Olaf the snowman – Frozen movies
- Nearly every princess in the Disney universe
- Simba as a cub – Lion King
- Pumba – The Lion King
Triangles are shapes usually used for villains, but a character that’s very quick, agile or futuristic may display this shape in a dominant form as well. This means that they don’t need to be villains to have triangles in their shapes. Have a look at rhino’s: They aren’t predatory animals, but because of their nature and their giant horns they pose a serious threat to people and many other animals. This animal may be a herbivore, but can kill none the less.
So, what else are triangles associates with: Triangles suggest movement, direction, energy, power, conflict, strength, progression, purpose, hierarchy, tension, and so on. The quote from the sometimes mentally unstable Loki ‘I’m burdened with glorious purpose’ makes way more sense now, doesn’t it?
When you look at Loki’s (Marvel) costume design throughout the series, you will see that the angles of the triangles shift. They’re evenly distributed when he’s mentally stable, when he’s not the design is uneven.
Some typical triangular characters
- Jafar – Alladin
- Loki – Marvel series
- Cruella the Ville – 101 Dalmatians
- The Grandmaster – Marvel Universe
- Scar – The Lion King
All shapes coming together in one character
You either love or hate the Marvel, but when it comes to character designs, they are absolute masters. I want to emphasize one character in particular: Ultron. He doesn’t fit in any of the above categories. When you look at this overall shape he’s mostly bulky – thus square. But when you look at his edges: They’re all rounded with very few exceptions. When we take a look at the shapes and details within this outline: Mostly triangular.
The nature of Ultron
What does this tell us about a character like Ultron? (Spoiler alert!) Ultron is the main villain in the movie ‘Age of Ultron’. He’s extremely dangerous and destructive, but while being so, works from data from the internet and whatever data Tony Stark fed him. Ultron is an embodiment of the Artificial Intelligence Peacekeeping Program, which means that, by nature, he was supposed to be a protector of the world against villains and extraterrestrial and other-dimensional attacks.
Because of his nature and access to the internet he ended up coming to the conclusion that the best way to protect earth, was by eliminating the human race, removing all threats for planet earth from the equation (humans destroying the planet by depleting it, and remove the threat of villains not from this world as a result as there would be nothing left to take or rule.
In the mind of Ultron the only way to make planet earth move on is by inhabiting it with machine life. A hive-mind that sustains rather than destroys the planet.
The psychology of Ultron
Sure, Ultron is a program, but he truly has a character. In many occasions you can tell he’s a troubled ‘person’ that wants to do the ‘right’ thing: Protecting the earth. There is no real crime to his nature, he does what he’s made for. His maker, Tony Stark, just didn’t anticipate the integrity of Ultron and his drive to do the right thing with the parameters he was given. In other words: Ultron is not really a villain, we just perceive him that way because he poses a real threat to human beings by doing what he was made to do. All the while his character shines through. He can relate to people, he does understand the way people think, and is highly frustrated with the fact that Tony Stark doesn’t agree with his approach. He might even be looking for approval from his maker: Tony Stark.
These are all characteristics for a human being. Or in this case: A highly intelligent computer program that gained consciousness in a world fully crafted by human beings. Check out his design and behavior in the video below, but remember: There are a lot of spoilers. Don’t watch it if you plan on watching the movie!
Shape design in Ultron
Knowing all this Ultron’s shapes suddenly make sense. He is a superior and strong being with a very straight-forward and clear goal (emphasized by his square stature). His round shapes refer to his goal: He wants peace, he wants to save the earth and his logic is very understandable. That people don’t like it is irrelevant. It’s not like he just wants to eliminate people for whatever reason, he wants to do so because he sees how much people hurt each other and planet earth. For the future of planet earth, the human race is a threat. This is what makes this character design so powerful: When designing Ultron they took his intentions into account while keeping what people think of it (the threat he poses to the human race) out of the equation.
When we look at the design within his outline we do see a lot of triangular shapes, they are however subtly integrated in his armor. The triangles don’t scream at you, but they are very much there. These shapes are there for a very good reason: Although by nature he means well, he is also extremely dangerous. He will reach his goal no matter what he has to sacrifice. His good intentions for planet earth may be dominating, but to achieve that goal he won’t hesitate to wipe out humanity,
All and all: Ultron is a character design that’s extremely well thought through. It communicates with you on a sub-conscious level through its design. Marvel is known to do this all the time: Another perfect example similar to Ultron is Thanos. Look him up and you understand what I mean. He however is a discussion for another moment!
Picking the right shape for your design
When you start with a new character or creature, it’s likely you will start with sketches determining the outlines and shapes of this creature. When you understand what your creature is about and what function it has, you can apply shapes to them that meet these qualities. If your creature is a deadly sea creature that’s extremely powerful, you may want to add square shapes to highlight its strength and triangles to display it’s deadliness.
The same counts for your characters. There are many ways to communicate what kind of character people are dealing with. When you look at people in daily life, these shapes are rarely telling, so if you’re going for a realistic approach, or want to confuse people as to what a character is about, you have a lot of leeway and might even want to ignore the rules altogether. People come in many shapes and forms, but are very limited at the same time compared to animistic creatures. Still, there are many ways in which you can communicate their nature when you need to.
Shape language in creature designs
A creature design has almost unlimited possibilities (within reason). When you draw properly from real life and have your basics down when it comes to creature designs, you’re well on your way to properly apply shape language.
Because creature design is such a broad subject, I always recommend to analyze your ideas before you start working on them:
- What is their nature? Are they carnivores, omnivores or herbivores?
- Do they scavenge, forage in treetops, hunt in caves, live off of moss?
- How do they move around? Do they need to climb, or cover large distances?
- Where do they live? The Savannah, a lake, a river, the ocean maybe? Maybe they’re avian.
- What is their behavior, do they interact with members of their species, or people? Or maybe even other animals?
- Are they defensive or aggressive? Are humans on their diet?
- How about their skin? Or fur? Scales? Are they camouflaged?
- What about other attributes? Do they have wings, or horns maybe?
How to make your pick
You can ask yourself a lot of questions, and each answer gives you another opportunity to apply the three main shapes. These shapes don’t have to reflect in every single feature of an animal! The best example is triangles: Look at our furry house cats. They’re cute and round, the only triangles that are always visible are that of the nose and the ears. It’s only when you face an angry cat that you see the deadly triangular teeth and claws.
This is something you can implement in your designs. Even when something looks round and fluffy, or square and reliable, you can make something deadly out of it. However, I do recommend you practice first on easier shapes and combinations. Drawing from real life is ideal in this situation. Draw a mutant kitten or a cute shark, or maybe even a deadly horse that’s very loving toward its owner.
The design of Toothless
Make sure you think about the purpose of the creature. Imagine a dragon for example, they’re very triangular. Triangular wings, head, teeth, claws… Then think about toothless from How to Train your Dragon. In my opinion one of the best designs ever for a deadly creature that can be very kind as well. Toothless was based off of domestic house cats. Both in behavior and appearance. In some scenes you even see dog-like behavior. Toothles looks pretty cute when he’s interacting with other dragons or his favorite people, but he looks a whole lot different when he’s angry or in fight mode. We can still see the round shapes, but because of the behavioral pattern, emotions on the face and the showing of teeth, Toothless becomes a lot less cute.
This displays perfectly how shapes can communicate, but also how lines can be crossed, and behavior and posing can make a real difference in your design.
Shape language in human characters
When it comes to character designs, there is a lot of overlap. Many creatures are referred to as characters when they have ‘character’, then there are hybrids like mermaids and fauns, or anthromorphs, which are animals that are behaving like humans. No matter what they are: The same rules apply to human characters, animalistic characters and anything in between. However, when we look at human(like) characters you can ask yourself a few different questions in an effort to determine shapes:
- Does the character behave like a human, or does it have animalistic traits?
- What status does the character have? (Does it live in the slums, a nice suburb town, a palace, a cave).
- What is the role of this character relative to other characters?
- Is it largely evil or friendly? What about it’s opposite traits? How can you make clear this character is not all good or bad?
- What is the goal of this character? To be accepted? Or to be the main villain? Or is it meant to throw people off as to what it’s onto?
It’s fairly common to use shapes from specific animal species to emphasize the nature of a human-like character. Jafar from the movie Alladin has a somewhat snake-like appearance, just like his staff. You see the same happen with characters that are mischievous or are outright villains too. To have a vulture-like neck and a large nose for example, is not uncommon. Point being: Don’t only look for shapes in human characters for a human character, rather check the animal kingdom too for interesting (combinations of) shapes.
Shape language in clothes
Another benefit of human-like character is that you can use shapes in their clothes to emphasize their nature. The same meanings to said shapes apply in their clothes. But you can also think about the placement: Especially triangles are interesting, they can be places on top of each other creating intricate patterns. An evenly triangular design can refer to a mentally balanced character. If the same triangles are leaning one way, this could refer to the same character being mentally unstable.
Where to find shapes in real animals
When looking for shapes in real animals, you can really look anywhere. It’s interesting though to look at a bit more iconic animals. Think of a horse: There are many different breeds out there. Some are built for speed, when they’re in peak condition they have a relatively triangular shape compared to the average horse, which is more circular. When you have a look at drafthorses you will notice that their main shape leans a bit toward a square.
You can do the same with dogs and basically all animals roaming this planet. The reason I mention specific animal species is because they have such a large diversity, and so much knowledge about the specific breeds, that it’s very easy to comprehend why they look the way they do, even relative to each other.
Breaking the rules
Breaking the rules: You can’t start early enough with it. I say it again: Toothless from How to Train your Dragon is a perfect example. Making a believable design more often than not means that you have to combine different shapes effectively in a way that makes sense. But to make a whole new design from scratch early on is near impossible. Even the masters use heavy reference and study their sources thoroughly. The only difference for them is that they can push their designs way further than many other people. Because of this I recommend to start small. Make hybrids, humanize an animal, use the features of max. 3 different creatures and make an effective design. When you do that often enough, breaking the rules will become a lot easier.