Applied Geometry in Design

March 12, 2018 • By

Geometry is a unique and special science. Sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Masonry, geometry is believed to hold special powers which exert strong influence. Even religions that don’t hold geometry as sacred, such as Christianity and Islam, still make extensive use of geometry in the design of their temples, art works, and many other things.

Some people may be surprised to learn that modern science supports the view that geometry may be highly influential in many ways. This is not just in regard to the influence geometric shapes could exert over people on a psychological level, but also the way geometric shapes can influence physics.

For example, there is a certain type of metal bowl manufactured by IKEA which is known to be a potential fire hazard, as the particular properties of its shape make it predisposed to trigger spontaneous combustion under certain circumstances.

It’s also no accident that bullet trains were originally bullet shaped. The aerodynamic curves on the front of the train reduce drag and help the train achieve higher speeds than it would otherwise be able to.

Japanese engineers then found the bullet trains literally made the sound of a bullet when exiting tunnels, so they refined the shape even further, with the new design now called the “kingfisher”, as shown below.

As a designer you should be constantly evaluating the geometry applied in your designs with regard to the following questions:

  • How does the geometry present in my design affect the aesthetics of my product?
  • How does the geometry present in my design improve the utility of my product?
  • How does the geometry present in my design influence people psychologically?

These three questions are fundamental to deciding whether the geometric properties in your design are appropriate or not.

Edsel: a lesson in design gone wrong

Ford Motors has been responsible for some truly innovative designs in automobiles, but one car model they’d love to be allowed to forget is the Edsel.

Marketed as “the car of the future”, all the Edsel cars were hideous monstrosities that failed in every way possible to make a positive impression on the market.

Design was part of the problem, build quality also contributed, and the third part of the problem was the marketing. What the Edsel really demonstrates is what happens when a marketing group too smugly assumes it understands the market and that it can even control it through marketing hype alone.

While there were a lot of mistakes made, including poor quality assurance, inappropriate pricing strategy, and lack of adequate market research, what really killed the Edsel was it’s visual design.

The Edsel was not alone in being ugly. A lot of ugly cars were produced during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Where it did stand alone was in telling the public that it was the “car of the future” while delivering something that felt to most people as a step backward.

The front grille in particular was a source of controversy. Some likened the design shape to a horse collar, others decided it reminded them more of gynecology. What nearly everyone agreed on, with the apparent exception of Ford’s executive team, was that they didn’t like it.

Grille design in those days was more important than it is today, because cooling systems were still in their infancy. The Edsel conceptual design was made without consulting automotive engineers for input. When the engineers redesigned the grille for more efficient cooling, that should have been when the design was finalized. But company executive, Ernest Breech, requested further changes to be made.

The final design, which went onto the products to be sold, was not the product of either professional designers or engineers. It was essentially satisfying the ego of the executive. It failed for all three of the fundamental design geometry questions:

  • The redesign did not add anything of value to the aesthetics of the product. In fact most reviewers described it as downright ugly.
  • The redesign did not add utility. The first redesign by the engineers was what they felt was necessary to provide the most efficient cooling. The second redesign may have reduced that efficiency.
  • The redesign did not adequately consider the psychological effect of the shape. People made undesirable mental associations concerning the shape.

The losses arising from these failures were in the vicinity of $250 million, which in the 1960s was quite a lot of money.

The psychology of shape

Shapes and lines can have powerful psychological effect. It is well known, for example, that most people prefer rounded corners on geometric shapes, which are perceived as “softer” and “friendlier” than pointed corners.

There is also research suggesting that the orientation of a shape can also have a powerful psychological effect.

It  is therefore important for any designer to make a study of the psychology of shapes, lines, and colors, learning how these may affect the viewer. This is of greater importance in visual design.

The physics of shape

How an object is shaped determines the way forces interact with that shape, both externally and internally. This plays a role in determining the strength of an object, but it is not the sole determinant. It also plays a role in determining how a moving object moves. Finally, it also determines certain properties of an object that will make it more desirable or less desirable to somebody.

If we compare the first generation Honda Civic side by side with a tenth generation Honda Civic, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent relationship between them other than that they are both cars. Yet they both developed from the same basic idea.


The modifications to the car body style include adding more curve to the roof and hood areas, making the angle of the windshield more flat, extending the nose to create a more aerodynamic profile, and adding fender scoops to help with cooling and to cut air resistance.

The concept for some of these changes can possibly be traced back to the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona. Chrysler engineers discovered that extending the nose of the vehicle would help reduce drag by approximately 9.5 percent. Shortening the nose had an even more dramatic effect on drag reduction, and Honda also experimented with this idea in the eighth generation model.

Shortening the nose for the eighth generation model resulted in an even more dramatic angle to the windshield. This was the beginning of the Civic becoming a more sporty kind of vehicle, and with each new generation, the Civic is transforming its exterior along the lines of classic American sports car styles.

Over the course of 10 releases, the Civic went from being a compact family car to a genuine sports car that can hold up well against competitors in its class, while still costing only a fraction of the price.

So, it is evident that shapes, patterns and angles have practical application beyond simply aesthetics. They also can affect the utility of an object and make it safer, more useful, stronger, or other things. Good use of geometric factors in physical design will improve an object, while poor use of these factors may result in detriment.

Practical Example: influence of geometric psychology

In this example, we are trying to sell a bicycle. We will look at the potential effects of different shapes and other geometric factors to influence our audience. First here’s what we want to sell:

We need to add some text to describe the item, or nobody will know why they want to buy it. Here is our updated ad:

This is a beautiful bike. It’s made from all natural materials, and is probably the most environmentally friendly personal transport device built since the industrial revolution. A bad advertisement simply won’t do it justice. Here’s what the marketing department wants us to use as an attention-getter:

This type of attention-getting sales badge is so commonly used, it’s almost a cliché. It certainly does stand out, but there are some things about this badge that can be improved, and should help the ad to get better results.

First there’s the color of it. It’s too industrial, not relating to the eco-friendly nature of the bike at all. To get a warmer, more earthy feel, we should sample the colors from the bike frame itself.

The change of color is less harsh on the eye and helps the text stand out a bit better from the background. But look how pointy that line style is. Pointed corners are antagonistic, and they spell danger. Let’s make our badge look safer by rounding off those points.

Now our badge is looking somewhere between a mud splotch and a chain sprocket, which is actually quite appropriate for a bike, but the shape is still eccentric. People may not relate to it easily. Let’s try reducing how many points it has.

Now it’s looking sort of like BC (a cartoon caveman created by Jonny Hart) carved the sales message on a rock. Otherwise this is a friendly and almost cartoonish shape. Let’s make it look a bit more like a tag card.

This is a lot better than the spiky blue monstrosity we started with, but we still have that awful text to deal with. Time to tidy that up.

What has been done here is the removal of all unnecessary text, a change to the wording, increase in the font size, and adaptation to a more cartoonish font, so it seems even friendlier than before.

Common sense alert: The examples shown above are not real advertisements. Don’t contact the manufacturer of the bike and expect to be offered a 40 percent discount. This was a geometry lesson, not a sales pitch.

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