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The Power of Profiles

Shape is fundamental—that’s why it is so easy to overlook.

I wrote a post a while back about a conundrum I faced—which side of a can of Red Bull should display the label: the side facing the customer or the drinker? On one hand, I argued, people want others to notice what they are drinking, so it is important for the logo to face outwards.

Earlier this week, a reader commented that the logo wasn’t that important – the unique, narrow shape of the can was how people would recognize the brand. I thought this was a good point, and it reminded me of something I’d read frequently in interviews with Matt Groening about the importance of profiles or silhouettes in design:

The secret of designing cartoon characters — and I’m giving away this secret now to all of you out there — is: you make a character that you can tell who it is in silhouette. I learned this from watching Mickey Mouse as a kid. You can tell Mickey Mouse from a mile away…those two big ears. Same thing with Popeye, same thing with Batman. And so, if you look at the Simpsons, they’re all identifiable in silhouette. Bart with the picket fence hair, Marge with the beehive, and Homer with the two little hairs, and all the rest. So…I think about hair quite a lot.

Simpsons in Profile

Of course, everything has a shape, but I think it is common to overlook the effectiveness of profile. Too often, I think, we focus on the content rather than the container and profile simply is simply what emerges. What Groening is saying, I believe, is not necessarily to do the opposite, but that a strong design works even when it is reduced to a mere outline.

It’s something to think about the next time you’re designing something that needs to stand out and be recognizable, like a brand or even a collection of icons for an interface. Take a step back and look at the artifact in silhouette. Now how does it read? Does it distinguish itself?

As for the Red Bull… well, these days it’s not the only tall narrow can on the shelf. It’s disappointing because it’s no longer distinguishing in the same way. However, it speaks to how iconic the design has become—the Red Bull design is the energy drink can.

Your moment of Zen for the day:

Shapes are important.
But shape isn’t everything.
More Tao of design.

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NickMay 23, 2008


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