Anthropomorphic Form in Web Design

“Close your eyes and feel their presence; channel their emotions” is how my figure drawing instructor would kick off many mornings of our 3.5 hour long studio session. It took me several semesters of softly shading tummy pooches and abstracting rounded shoulders to learn that the most engaging depictions of the human form weren’t clear representations of what was in front of me, but deep abstractions of lines and light.

People all react to visual elements differently, as designers we try and create compositions that communicate the intended message to the widest audience of people, while also appeasing our clients. It’s our responsibility to balance the parameters and opinions of  our clients with the overall communication goals of a design. While there are lots of tactics for doing this I am convinced that understanding the psychology of visual perception (the “why”s) carve a faster path to quality end results more-so than the “hows”.

We have all had clients say amazing things to us in meetings, unexpected, glorious and sometimes confusing things. Some people get frustrated or confused at unexpected reactions to their creations, but I revel in them. Perhaps it’s my curious nature, but I dig deeper into the human psyche with every unexpected comment.

That brings me to the time when a client told me “That (data) table is SEXY!”. This comment has had me thinking since the infamous comp presentation. If the page had featured a large image of a person or clear reference to human characteristics, it would have been less surprising;, “sexy” generally applies human physical attraction.  This was a full page of tabbed data tables, gridded, geometric, and full of numbers; the content was robotic. This gentleman was implying that a composition of gradients, lines, and type weren’t just communicating to him, they were seductive. They made him feel! His perception is relates to those same principles  that make abstract elements communicate the human

What exactly provoked such an unusual, yet delightful reaction a design? Can we leverage known psychological reactions to help our clients tell their stories through web design?

Anthropomorphic Form is the mimicry of the human form and in web design we can use it to abstractly “seduce” our users. Rounded corners, gradients, and subtle nods to the elements that we find attractive in each other can be very powerful. They are the building blocks of the human form boiled down to it’s simplest parts.

It’s a powerful principle that is commonly used in product design. Look at the shape of the Coca-cola bottle and Method cleaning products. Both are examples of how the abstract mimicry of the human form can engage users. The Coca-cola bottle shape has become as iconic as their logo and used to be nicknamed the “Mae West” because it was rumored to be shaped  based on her hips. Have you ever bought dish soap or toilet bowl cleaner because of the appeal of the product shape?

Executing a design using Anthropomorphic Form is one thing, but it is also important for us to articulate how these principles support our client’s and users’s goals. While the “whys” of design are important increasing more engaging designs they also make critical tools in our arsenal when  communicating with our clients. When was the last time you sold a client a font choice with “I just liked it”? You didn’t just like it!  Every decision is based on a complex thought process, whether you realize it or not. THERE was a reason, start to understand the “why’s” in your  design decisions and you will see a change in how the design process works for you.


  1. — August 12, 2011

  2. — August 12, 2011