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In 1946, Solomon Asch wrote a paper on how the physical aspects of a character affects the viewer’s impression of its emotions:

 Body shape has a tremendous impact on the overall impression of the character. If you ever looked at a cartoon character and though they seemed confident but didn’t know why, you probably were not aware of the character’s shape language!

Shape psychology is widely practiced in Disney and other famous animation studios. But the effect of shape is not confined in the movie industry. A lot of marketing agencies and animation studios utilize the power of shape language to design well-structured characters that are key to brand awareness and lead generation. 

In this article, we briefly talk about different character shapes and how each of them can be used to communicate different emotions. By knowing some basic universal rules about shape psychology, you will be able to tell a bad character from a good one. This way, you’ll have more knowledge when outsourcing your character design projects to a character design studio. Ok enough talking, let’s dive in!

What is shape language in character design?

Shape Language is a concept used in art and 3d animation to communicate meaning based on shapes we are familiar. When used in character design, shapes can tell a story, show personality, and illicit an emotional response in the viewer without using any words.

David Colman, an Emmy winning character planner found in his studies that:

Body language and overall posture of the character has more weight of emotion compared to facial expressions (eyes, eyebrows, lips and so on)

Some designers argue that color is more effective in conveying emotions; however, you should know that color theory is pretty subjective and can be interpreted in different ways from culture to culture. Shape language, on the other hand, seems to have more universal meaning making it much more important for designers and brands.

(We have a complete and simple guide on using color for a character, you can check it out on Color theory on character design page.)

Colam also says Communicating a personality through body language and silhouette is far more powerful than only showing emotion through facial expression. That’s why we usually tend to draw the body first and then add more details with the face.

What’s more is that  we often assign qualities to a person or a character in our subconscious only by perceiving them as a combination of shapes.

shape language effect on character emotions

What are different types of shapes in character design?

Circles
You might probably have seen some chubby faces and wondered: “Isn’t that cute?” Well there’s a reason for that. Circles and ovals are mostly used for friendly and outgoing faces. You can experiment putting circular shapes in different parts of a character’s body, clothes, and hair to show the same warm feeling.

circle shape meaning in character design

Squares
Have you ever thought about the reason why square-faced people look more confident and inflexible? That’s because Square-like shapes relate to straight vertical and horizontal lines that communicate strength, stability and confidence. Squares can both be large and daunting or comforting and clumsy. They often depict steadfast characters who are dependable and are commonly used for superheroes.

squares shape meaning in character design

Triangles
And finally, the evil shape! Triangles are the most dynamic of the three shapes we have mentioned so far. Bad guys and villains are often based upon dominant triangular concepts, as they appear malicious, sinister and communicate with the most aggression. It is the circle’s most opposing shape and often used for antagonists.

triangle shape meaning in character

Shape language in famous Animated Movies

Up (2009)
One of the main character’s of Up, produced by Pixar Animation Studios, is the grouchy Carl: A stubborn old man who just wants to stay put and has a generally solid and static manner that is much revealed in his square-like shape. Charles Muntz – the antagonist – has a much more angular concept as seen for example in his head, shoes and cane. The jacket also gives him a very triangular major shape. Muntz’ leader dog, Alpha, also has a much more malicious appearance compared to Dug’s friendly countenance – a triangle versus a circle. This is something that we can relate to reality as well: Aggressive dogs tend to have more angular concepts than the general, more circular-based, family dogs.

Pixar UP shape language characters

How is shape language different in some situations?

One might think that all characters are made up of basic shapes likes circles, squares and triangles, but there are situations where we can mix all these shapes to create a character. Besides, circles, squares, and triangles don’t always mean one thing. There might be times when shapes are used to disguise the purpose or functionality of a character, object, or location.

For example:

Circles: There may be circular and rounded characters who are designed to look kind and are the antagonist. Using circular shapes is purposeful and can mislead the audience about
who the character is. Adding circles to villains can imply their level of weakness and express that they do not have to look dangerous to be dangerous.

Triangles: These shapes don’t always mean things are bad. Lots of triangular shapes on an object can allude to its strength. Triangles on a character don’t always mean that they are a villain either. They can have spikes on their clothes for protection like a warrior, or points in their hair or face because they are intellectually sharp.

shape language triangle meaning

A case study about Shape Language in Dream Farm Studios

At Dream Farm, we come across a lot of character design projects, some of which are already designed and need some tweaks and adjustments to get better recognition. Below is one example of a project in which the character shape language is not designed suitably for children.

Wrong usage of shape language in character design example

It’s a rule of thumb to use less triangular, square and rough angles in the design, according to the age group of animation and the psychology of geometric shapes, and to use more curved shapes. Besides, adding larger claws for the character and reducing the width of the hand on the arm and forearm is more appropriate and more modern in terms of design. It is recommended to remove the current floor and make the toes visible because in some places, such as climbing rocks and trees, it can create anatomy and a beautiful style in animation.

add details for character design shape language

Final Words

We all know how a character is viewed differs from one person to another. However, there are some universal rules about shape language that are proved to be constant all over the world. Knowing different shapes in character design and using them at the right time and the right place will make your character come into life.

 

Shape language Challenge for our readers!

Nothing in animation counts until you start experimenting so we are going to announce our little fun and educational challenge for you.

look at the following exercise and try to come up with different ideas for character design. You can share the result in the comment section by attaching an image or drop us a line on our Facebook page. What are you waiting for? Give it a try and spark that inner designer in you!

shape language character design challenge

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Suzana Smith
Suzana Smith
1 month ago

Here’s my take on a square like character with hard feelings and stubborn personality!

BOX_2500_c.jpg
Arash Naghdi
Arash Naghdi
1 month ago
Reply to  Suzana Smith

Awesome! though it’s not an animal per se, we accept it 🙂 or maybe it is!

Abdelrahim Ahmed TD
Abdelrahim Ahmed TD
1 month ago

Wow this super creative, keep going

Haitham
Haitham
1 month ago

Very good artecal

Michael Olasanya
Michael Olasanya
1 month ago

Lovely as usual and I always learn something new. Thanks

Timothy poole
Timothy poole
1 month ago

I am a Professor of Digital Media and I teach a course in Character Design. This fits exactly with my teaching

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