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Using Squares

Shape, an Element of Design


A square suggests formality.

A square suggests formality.

© J. Bear
Shape is one of the elements of design. A square is a shape. A square shape refers not only to 4-sided figures with sides all of one length. For our purposes squares are rectangles and other squarish shapes. A square can be flat like a piece of paper or a 3-dimensional cube, such as a box.

The square denotes honesty and stability. Squares are familiar, trusted shapes. Because the vast majority of the text we read is set in squares and rectangles, it has become familiar, safe, and comfortable.

Squares and rectangles are probably the most common geometric shapes we encounter. A few books, especially those for kids, may be cut in irregular shapes but adult (i.e. serious) correspondence comes in squares -- both the physical shape of the books, magazines, newspapers, and the rectangular columns of set text. Photographs and paintings are usually squares or rectangles.

Some designers might equate square with boring. It's true that other, unexpected shapes, can grab attention better than the simple square but don't forget the importance of comfort and familiarity. Imagine how difficult it becomes to file everyday correspondence if letterhead came in a variety of triangles or freeform shapes. Try reading an entire book with all the text set in circles. Squares and rectangles definitely have a place in design.

If square is the right shape but it seems too formal or too rigid for the design, try softening the square. Using rounded corners or drawing squares with softer lines such as brushes or felt tip markers can take the edge off. A square with a handdrawn look is less formal than one with perfectly straight lines and sharp corners.

Some ways you can use squares and rectangles:

  • To symbolize honesty, stability, equality, comfort, or familiarity. Consider the square shape of logos for the BBC, Adobe, and YouTube (with the round corners and a shape that suggests a television screen). On the flip side, squares could also symbolize rigidity or uniformity.

  • Related to the first bullet item, use repeating squares to suggest familiar themes (checkerboard pattern to represent a game board, the checkered flag at the end of a race, a tablecloth).

  • To highlight, organize, or set apart information using a solid or outlined box. Just don't overdo the use of boxes because then they lose their ability to attract attention.

  • Use a square unexpectedly. Set a block of text in a solid or outlined but tilted box — with or without also tilting the text. Even square bullets in a bullet list become more interesting when turned at a 45 degree angle.

Browse an elements of design square shapes gallery of logos and page layouts that utilize square shapes in subtle and obvious ways.

Get Started:Basic Guidelines and Requirements for Desktop Publishing
Choose Software:Desktop Publishing and Design Software
Make Something: Things to Make Using Desktop Publishing
Tips & Tutorials:How to Do Desktop Publishing
Training, Education, Jobs:Careers in Desktop Publishing
In the Classroom: Back to School With Desktop Publishing
Use Templates: Templates for Print and Web Publishing

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