(This post is based on the video, “Anthropomorphic Form,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)
If you’ve ever looked at the #iseefaces hashtag on social media, you know that faces appear all around us: on buildings, on trees, on sidewalks, and even in food. In fact, objects with humanistic characteristics and shapes are more common than most people realize.
As humans, we tend to be drawn to forms and patterns that are anthropomorphic, or exhibit human-like traits. Designers have used this innate emotional attraction to humanoid characteristics to get attention for products, create positive interactions and relationships, and convey subtle messages.
Anthropomorphic Form Gives Personality to Design
One of the most famous examples of anthropomorphic form in design is the Coca-Cola “contour” or “Mae West” bottle. It was designed to have feminine proportions and to draw consumers in with its curves, which communicate sexuality, vitality, and elegance. When it debuted in 1915, it was a breakthrough design, and today, it’s iconic. People only need to see the shape to think of Coca-Cola.
When Coca-Cola’s “Mae West” bottle debuted in 1915, it was a breakthrough design — and today, it’s iconic.
Designers use masculine forms, too. The Listerine mouthwash bottle uses hard-edged geometry to communicate masculinity. The bottle resembles a strong, broad torso and imparts a sense of strength, a quality Listerine wants you to associate with its products.
Method is another brand that uses anthropomorphic form to help its products stand out, but it sends a different message than Listerine or Coke. Its rounded, sculptural design has a baby-like geometry that conveys comfort, safety, honesty, and purity — qualities that most people want to bring into their homes.
How Form Helps Convey Function
Anthropomorphic form works best when it’s used to tell a story or say something about what a product does. It can be used to build brand identity, but it can also help users understand how and where to use products.
Power tools, for instance, often take a more masculine form. Their hard edges and chamfered angles are associated with strength, power, and durability. This form signals that the products are tough, rugged, and durable.
Hard edges and chamfered angles signify that a product is tough, rugged, and durable.
On the other hand, products with smooth, soft, round edges have more feminine or baby-like traits. You often see this in products that are meant to be handled delicately and those that have a cute or playful element. When we designed the Aqua Products pool-cleaning robots, we gave them an almost turtle-like shape. The form is fun and playful, which is fitting for a poolside setting, and it almost looks like a creature that’s meant to live in the water.
Anthropomorphism Is Best Kept Abstract
It’s important not to get too literal with anthropomorphism; it’s best to favor the abstract over realistic forms. Research has shown that subtle human features can make smart objects like companion robots and self-driving cars seem trustworthy and dependable. Overtly humanoid forms, on the other hand, can come off as creepy.
Anki robots, for instance, have smooth rounded “faces” with light-up eyes that make them seem lifelike. They still look very much like small, wheeled boxes, though. They’re anthropomorphic enough to draw people in, but not so human that they’ll scare anyone away. On the other end of the spectrum are robots like the bipedal bots by Boston Dynamics that have human-like bodies and can run, jump, and fight back when poked with a hockey stick.
It’s important not to get too literal with anthropomorphism — products with subtle human features will draw people in, but ones that are too human will scare them away.
This applies to everyday products, too. The Senseo coffee maker was designed to look like someone leaning over to pour coffee. You probably wouldn’t guess that by simply looking at the device, but it does invoke a sense of someone gently serving your morning cup. If it looked any more human, consumers would take a second look and might turn away.
Anthropomorphism in Interaction Design
Anthropomorphism isn’t restricted to industrial design and physical products. Gestural anthropomorphic form uses human-like movements and poses to express meaning and instruction.
If you enter the wrong password in some login forms, they shake from side to side, like a head shaking “no.” Even a blinking light can give the appearance of an eye, and voice assistants take on anthropomorphic form when they’re designed to sound like humans and given names like Alexa or Siri.
Ideas About Gender Are Changing
The forms people associate with masculinity and femininity vary across cultures and are impacted by social norms. Beyond that, preferences and assumptions vary from person to person.
In many ways, anthropomorphic form, especially when it relies on gender stereotypes, is outdated. There has been a backlash against the “pinking and shrinking” of products meant for women. Likewise, we shouldn’t assume that an angular form will appeal more to men. As people start to see gender as more fluid, it will be interesting to see the evolution of perceptions of anthropomorphic form in product design.
In the future, I think anthropomorphism will evolve and possibly blend more with biomimicry. We might look more toward nature for inspiration.
Understanding Products’ Unconscious Appeal
It’s important to remember that anthropomorphism works on a subconscious level. When most people look at a Coca-Cola or Listerine bottle, they don’t consciously think about the feminine and masculine traits of those packages. Anthropomorphism uses hidden characteristics and the innate assumptions and associations made by users. Understanding those assumptions is not always easy, but it can give designers another creative tool.
How can you use anthropomorphism in your work? Will you use it to set a mood or make an emotional connection or help users understand how to use a product — or both?
Learn about more product design principles when you download our free eBook, Design Defined, vol 1.