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Johannes Itten, the Bauhaus designer and theorist, deduced that there are three basic forms - the square, the triangle, the circle - that in turn are typified by four directions in space: the square is horizontal and vertical; the triangle diagonal; and the circle a tautology, never-ending and with no clear beginning. These abstract forms enable us to categorize the shapes (the mark we make or the outline of an object) we experience in everyday life.

Each of the basic forms has its own character and each denotes meaning in and of itself, based on our psychology. The square is non-dynamic; hence a dullard is called a "square." A triangle's diagonal lines create motion and tension and so it is the shape of a warning sign. The circle, like the mandala, is spiritual, warm, and endless, like a wedding ring. In any graphic representation we build the organizing structures for the gestalts we seek to create from these shapes, their compound shapes, and their negative spaces - the shapes between. We use shapes in combinations, and truncate and multiply them to create a language of architecture and metaphor.

Shape refers to the external outline of an object. Through geometry, we can define shapes mathematically in terms of points and lines. A triangle may be defined by its three corner points, a circle by its center and radius. By combining fundamental geometric shapes, we can give form to space - what we often call architecture or design. Thus, in the world of the circuit, the complex geometry that creates virtual shapes is a matter of representations that are primarily experienced through the eye.

Shape is one of the elementary characteristics of a perceived object: we decipher visual stimuli in terms of shape, motion, location, and a few other primary characteristics. Our concept of universal forms enables us to recognize a particular shape as a subset of a larger class of shapes. Chairs, for example, take many shapes and forms, but if we can recognize one, we have no problem recognizing others.

Apple OS X Trash Can
Apple's OS X has updated its classic trash can icon

From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we drift into sleep, everything we interact with is designed. There is nothing human-made that has not been designed, although many things are designed poorly. Human creativity is but one special case of giving shape to form. Although the creative drive is unconscious, its enactment is conscious and deliberate. Shape can be created by the human hand or what biologist Richard Dawkins calls the blind watchmaker: nature.

Scholar and scientist D'Arcy Thompson (1860-1948) noted nearly a century ago that nature's designs are truly beyond our comprehension and yet exist with many of the formal qualities that give shape to our creativity. An understanding of the visual world is all the more critical in the realm of digital expression, as we become more attuned to the symbolic functioning of shape by heightening our visual sensibilities. Our experience with the computer is almost exclusively through visual symbol (though our input is tactile); although we hear it through a multitude of sounds, we cannot experience it as a transforming space without engaging its shapes. Repeated uses of certain shapes become icons, and those icons are the building blocks of the architecture through which we navigate within our computers, like the familiar shape of the Macintosh trash can.

Success in the marketplace depends on shapes becoming trademarks and ubiquitous cultural status symbols. Through advertising, the Nike "swoosh" logo has become a symbol that carries many cultural meanings. Shapes have meaning beyond their literal appearances and become metaphors more powerful than the words that describe them; think of the sometimes visceral reaction we have to the shape of the Nazi swastika. The problem for creativity is that the frequent use of such shapes inhibits the creation of new paradigms for exploration. We tend to use existing entities rather than creatively or logically extending our metaphors in building new architectures.

In the field of graphic design we can speak of geometric shape as opposed to organic shape. Geometric shapes are based on simple rules of geometry, whereas organic shapes tend to be more complicated and less easy to reproduce. It is easier to draw a circle than a face. Until recently, computers had difficulty drawing organic shapes, though they could very easily be programmed to create geometric ones.