Shaping Your Behavior: How Shapes Can Shape the Mind

28 January 2013 | By Sign Salad

It’s not unknown to have the odd alcoholic beverage on one’s birthday but how much we drink may not be entirely down to how celebratory we’re feeling. Apparently there are other unconscious factors at play…

We spend a fair bit of time here at Sign Salad analysing the shape or ‘morphology’ of objects. The premise we work on is that hidden messages communicated by such objects can significantly affect consumers’ perception of a product or brand, largely unconsciously.

Often designers are not trying to ‘communicate’ much aside from ‘this looks cool’ or ‘this looks premium’. Aside from the necessary practicality of say a soft drink bottle, designers focus on aesthetics. Many a skeptic of the semiotic approach will argue that the effectiveness of a design is dependent on such aesthetic qualities (this one looks nicer than that one), or else on arbitrary association (it’s the best/tastiest/coolest drink so the bottle shape is the best too. Plus Britney drinks it so yay!).

Yet the object’s shape will nevertheless mean something to consumers beyond these factors. The problem is, oftentimes the meaning is not what would have been intended, and even when designers are trying to communicate something deeper – say, producing a bottle that ever so slightly resembles the Eiffel tower in order for the product to connote a sense of Parisian chic – the object may in fact subtly connote something less favourable for the brand (a banana, a sex toy, a piece of packaging from a different FMCG category).

But if shape matters at the tacit level, how can we measure its behavioural consequences? Fortunately, science occasionally weighs in and provides quantitative evidence of how morphology can affect perception and even determine behaviour.

The school of experimental psychology at Bristol University recently recruited 160 social drinkers aged 18-40 and tested the time it took them to drink a half-pint of lager from two kinds of glasses: what the researchers called ‘a fashionable curved glass’ and ‘a conventional straight one’. The results were remarkable. On average, drinkers consumed lager almost twice as fast if it was served in the former type – 7 minutes versus 12 minutes. The researchers also discovered that those participants who were worst at calculating where the halfway point in the curved glass was were the ones who drank fastest from those glasses. They concluded that curved glasses prevent drinkers from ‘pacing’ themselves properly because this design doesn’t afford very accurate information about when half the drink is gone.

It is of course possible that the two designs affected the drinkers for other reasons too, perhaps – in the spirit of semiotic speculation – because ‘unorthodox’ designs foster ‘unorthodox’ or ‘maverick’ behaviour, which tends to be linked with debauchery and lack of constraint. Perhaps straight glasses encourage ‘straight’ or ‘straight-laced’ behaviour and curved glasses ‘twisted’ or ‘kinky’ behaviour. And curvaceousness is, of course, intimately connected with heightened female sexuality, evoking meanings of desire, heat, display, and the concepts of ‘ampleness’ and ‘excess’ (and not only in the male mind) – all of which, one might imagine, would drive more rather than less drinking. But that’s for a much deeper semiotic study to explore. Guess someone’s gotta do it.



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