Building An Emotional Connection With Your Audience: Anthropomorphic Forms Part I

In 1915, worried that their straight-sided bottle could be easily confused with those of imitators, the Coca-Cola company set out to create a distinctive new bottle. The design goal was to have a bottle that would be easily recognized and identified with Coca-Cola and one that a person could tell was a Coca-Cola bottle even in the dark when they couldn’t see it.

1915 Mae West Coca-Cola Bottle-1915

The company launched a national competition and the eventual winner was the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. Lead designer Earl R. Dean took inspiration for the new bottle from the form of the Cocoa pod. The first prototype had an issue with the size of the bottle’s middle as it was too large for most bottling equipment used at the time.

A redesign with a slimmed down midsection was chosen as winner of the competition. The now familiar Coco-Cola “contour bottle” was born. It made an immediate impact on buyers and increased Coca-Cola sales.

In 1960 the bottle was registered as a trade-mark because its unique form had become so distinctive with the company and an icon for Coca-Cola.

Over time the bottle has been called the “hobble skirt bottle” as well as the “Mae West bottle.” The latter nickname is very apt. In addition to being unique the bottle exhibited an anthropomorphic form, mimicking feminine curves and projected association with health, vitality, sexiness, and femininity. Those associations helped sell more Coca-Cola.

Mae West: When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better

Anthropomorphic Form

Human beings are programmed to see certain forms and patterns as being more humanlike. This is especially true when the forms or patterns resemble the human face or human body proportions. We also have a tendency to find these forms more appealing. When an object appears humanoid or exhibits human characteristics we simply like it more.

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human animal or non-living things, phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts. Mother Nature controlling the elements for example. Art and Storytelling are rich with the use of anthropomorphism and have been since the earliest paintings and stories.

An anthropomorphic form is one that exhibits human-like qualities. As designers we can use this tendency to find anthropomorphic forms more appealing to attract attention to design elements, establish a positive frame or tone for our designs, and even build relationships and make emotional connections with our audience.

The anthropomorphic form conveys the qualities we see in the human form it’s mimicking. A form displaying the feminine body conveys sexuality for example. One important concept is that the form doesn’t actually need to look like a face or a body.

The forms can be, and are probably better off, as abstract representations of the body. Studies have shown that abstract anthropomorphic forms are favored over realistic ones, something we’ll cover in the second part of this post.

Posable artist's models

The 4 Types of Anthropomorphic Form

In their research paper Imitating the Human Form (PDF) for Carnegie Melon University, Carl DiSalvo, Francine Gemperle, and Jodi Forlizzi identify 4 types of anthropomorphic form to answer the question, what aspect of human form is being imitated?

  1. Structural Anthropomorphic Form – The presence of shapes, volumes, mechanisms, or arrangements that mimic the appearance or functioning of the human body. For example a posable artist’s model like the ones seen in the image above.
  2. Gestural Anthropomorphic Form – The use of motions or poses that suggest human action to express meaning, intention, or instruction. For example Mac OS X’s login form, which shakes from side to side as if to suggest a head shaking “no” for an incorrect login.
  3. Character Anthropomorphic Form – The display of qualities or habits that define and describe individuals. For example Jean-Paul Gaultier “Le Male” usb key seen below.
  4. Aware Anthropomorphic Form – The suggestion that forms posses a knowledge of the self in relation to others, the ability to construct or manipulate abstract ideas, or the ability to actively participate with others. Examples of this last type are hard to find in consumer products. Consider the robots and artificial intelligence of science fiction stories as an example.

Jean Paul Gaultier le male usb key

They define these types as a starting point for conversation and as an aide for designers to determine which type above is being used or should be used given design goals. The trio offers a series of questions to ask about each type of anthropomorphic form to help with the discussion.

Structural Character
Is there a body or body parts? Does it imitate human relationships?
Does it work like a human body? Could you describe its character or social role?
Are the parts universal to all human bodies? Does it relate to a human experience?
Does it have to be anthropomorphic? Does it not have to be anthropomorphic?
Gestural Aware
Is there action or expression? Does it appear to be aware?
Does that action tell you something? Is there a simulation of human consciousness?
Could you assign human meaning? Do you relate to it as a human?
Does it not have to be anthropomorphic? Does it have to be anthropomorphic?

Structural and gestural anthropomorphic forms share an emphasis on the human body. They render human form in relation to the human body as an object with certain capabilities.

Character and aware anthropomorphic forms share an emphasis on human beings. The former renders human form in relation the characteristics of people and the social practices of individuals. The latter renders human form in relation to being human.

Stones as an anthropomorphic form

The 4 Primary Uses of Anthropomorphic Form

In another paper, From Seduction to Fulfillment: The Use of Anthropomorphic Form in Design (PDF), the same authors identify 4 primary uses for anthropomorphic forms in design.

  1. Keeping things the same
  2. Explaining the unknown
  3. Reflecting product attributes
  4. Projecting human values

The first above is mainly for product categories like bottles that have been using anthropomorphic forms for awhile. Changing now could lead to confusion as the product class is so associated with the form at this point.

The other three uses are all about transferring the associations we have with the form to the design or object being designed. We can convey a message that a design shares certain qualities we associate with human beings. The specific shape of the form carries with it different associations that are then seen in the design.

For example we can:

  • use feminine body proportions to convey sexuality and vitality
  • use round forms to convey babylike impressions and biases
  • use angular forms to convey masculinity and aggression

Tea cup drawing with eyes, nose, and mouth, displaying an anthropomorphic form

Overall the use of anthropomorphic forms helps us create a frame for our design. They set a mood and make an emotional connection with visitors to our sites and customers for our products. They also make promises to people that suggest how a product or design will meet certain expectations.

  • Seductive anthropomorphic forms use the form to seduce someone into buying or using the product or design. They make promises of an enjoyable experience, though they may not fulfill that promise.
  • Fulfilling anthropomorphic forms use the form to lead people to a more meaningful understanding of the purpose and function of a product or design. They inform and guide and do fulfill their promise.

The seductive use above highlights an argument against the use of anthropomorphic forms, that of the form setting false expectations and making unfulfilled promises about a design. That could lead to problems from consumers feeling cheated to the possibility of someone using a product incorrectly to the point of it being dangerous.

The above calls out an important considerations. In using forms to transfer certain associations and make promises about a design we as designers, should use them ethically. Let’s not make promises that the design can’t keep and let’s not attempt to convey qualities about a design we know not to be true.

T. Benjamin Faucett, Folksy Fruits, 1924

Additional Resources

Below are some additional resources I collected while researching this article

waist to hip of male and female models

Waist-to-Hip Ratio

Before leaving this post it’s worth mentioning quickly the waist-to-hip ratio. We have a preference for a specific range of waist-to-hip ratios when it comes to the attractiveness of men and women. In fact it seems to be one of the primary factors in determining the physical attractiveness of human beings

As the name implies the waist-to-hip ratio is determined by dividing the circumference of the waist (the narrowest portion of the midsection) by the hip (the widest area around the buttocks). In women a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.67 to 0.80 is considered most attractive. In men the most attractive ratio is somewhere between 0.85 and 0.95.

Some even argue that the ratio is one of the best metrics for determining the cardiovascular health of an individual, though of course, there’s disagreement and some consider the ratio inadequate.

The takeaway for us is to understand the bias and to be more aware of the ratio when selecting images of people or creating anthropomorphic forms in a design. We don’t necessarily need to make calculations, but being aware of them can be beneficial when deciding why an image or shape is or isn’t working in a design.

Abstract sculpture with an anthropomorphic form

Summary

The use of anthropomorphic forms in a design can be a great way to make your design more appealing to your audience and to build an emotional rapport with them. We like things that look and act like us. We’re predisposed to prefer them.

When using anthropomorphic forms there are a few things to keep in mind. First there are several types of anthropomorphic forms. We’re not limited solely by how a thing looks. We can create anthropomorphic forms through the actions of the form or the form’s relation to other elements.

Abstract will likely work best, something we’ll cover in more detail next time. We want to give the impression the form has human characteristics without necessarily looking almost human-like. Again the details of this will come next week when we talk about the uncanny valley.

There are different uses of anthropomorphic forms in design, though most deal with making a connection between an object or design element and one or more human characteristic. We make promises with the forms that can be used to seduce or lead to a more meaningful understanding of a designs purpose and function. The latter fulfills the promise made. The former may or may not.

Next week I want to continue with the topic of anthropomorphic forms. First with a look at contour bias, which can help us decide how to create our forms in order to convey different messages. Then with a look at the uncanny valley and why abstract anthropomorphic forms work better than nearly realistic forms.

Mae West

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

3 comments

    • Thanks Ian. I hope I used the right amount of non-directly-related-to-design words. :)

      I understand why you see posts that aren’t 100% design related. Sometimes an interesting topic doesn’t relate entirely to design. I try to make design connections as much as I can, but I also do write posts that aren’t specifically about design. Usually those posts are related to things we as designers might be doing like building our businesses or blogging.

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