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Principles of design and animation, part 1: Shape

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Animation and design are excellent and increasingly popular ways of communicating information surrounding complex topics. By processing complicated statistics, figures, and terminology into abstract imagery and movement, communication becomes more effective and engaging.

An image showing simple shapes – a square, a circle, and a triangle.

In a series of posts, I’ll outline five key principles of design and animation which can be used for communicating complexity. We’ll start with shape.

When it comes to imagery, shapes are a good place to start. You might not be aware of it when you’re watching a video or looking at a poster, but simple shapes like squares, circles and triangles all carry their own meanings.

Squares are uniform; mathematically speaking, they are equally proportioned shapes. This uniformity can be perceived as traditional, strict, or even dull. However, they can also represent strength. Circles on the other hand consist of a singular, more interesting curved line. With no corners, a circle is also clearly not a threat. They suggest uniqueness and friendliness.

An image demonstrating how shape can be used to communicate meaning.

With their common usage in arrows, triangles often suggest direction. A triangle can guide the eye to where it’s pointing. Looking particularly at character design in animation, a triangle’s angle can also have a significant effect on how intimidating it appears. Triangles pointing downwards suggest menacing, overbearing characters (such as Gru from Despicable Me) and triangles pointing upwards suggest fumbling, or overweight characters (such as Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants).

An image demonstrating how the arrangement of shapes can communicate different ideas

Combining different shapes can create a shared meaning. Circles in a square pattern have all the characteristics of circles individually, but as a group, they have those of a square. Arranging shapes in a circular pattern make them all equally close to the centre point, which could be a shared goal or some other item of importance.

An image demonstrating how groups of simple shapes can be used to represent real-world objects

Similarly, recognisable objects can be formed by combining simple shapes.

In case you missed them, here are the other principles of animation and design:

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