Rick Johnston
Jul 10 · 5 min read

Visual design and the self.

How subtle design changes can make us feel.

The first time I really understood design was travelling through Warsaw while inter-railing (something Brexit will likely destroy for my own daughters).

I was staring from the window of an overnight train from somewhere a night’s journey away in Europe. As the train entered the urban centre of Warsaw in the July dawn I witnessed communist architecture in all its mathematical totalitarianism.

Street after street of tower block exactly the same.

Warsaw Apartment Complex. Mokotów

The same windows, the same length, the same angles, all the same height.

A monotony of mathematical perfection.


But then,

A gap in the rhythm of simple geometry.

Between two tower blocks a space in the scenery revealed a more complex building.

A church, no less. Simple, decorated, with curves and extra pieces of structure added just for fun.

Warsaw Church CC 4.0

And I FELT the difference. I physically felt lighter, more human. The design affected me with a slap of beauty.

The gap opened up and then was closed again by more monotony.

That experience resonated with me as I began to think about the emotional response we have to how things look.

Consider just for a moment the slightest nuance of change in a human face and what is conveyed by those changes.

I can raise my eyebrow and you will understand the meaning as “are you thinking what I’m thinking?”. If I have raised it even more subtly in a social setting it can mean, for those that know me, ‘Oh Really?!’.

Raised even further an eyebrow moves from the meaning of slight doubt to one of “I’m annoyed”.

Subtle angular changes represent (and are interpreted as) different emotions.

And so, what of design, and, in particular, of shapes.

On this question I began by creating three pentagons of my own.

For each I asked myself, “What do these shapes suggest or evoke? What do they say if they are speaking at all?”

Perhaps you can try it as you look. Perhaps ask “If this were a person, what kind of person would they be?”.

Here is the first:

For me, (a) is functional with the minimum of decoration. It provides a space or a window with a decorative point at the top almost as an afterthought. It is robust and satisfying. Adequate for the task.

Now consider the next:

Pentagon (b) is highly stylised as if pointing to heaven. To me, it is spire-like, evoking praying hands and seems to have graceful proportions. Interestingly others I have asked have seen this shape in less ‘aspirational’ and ‘positive’ terms. They thought (and anecdotally if not statistically relevant have been mostly females) its pointedness suggested severe qualities, more like the dangerous point of a spear than a stylised spire.

If (a) represented a person, they were reliable and robust, but (b) to my companions would represent someone dangerous and severe.

Lastly, this:

For me, ( c )’s asymmetry puts it out of place with the other two. It seems somehow “wrong” and yet its gently flopped edge suggests humility, a shape that doesn’t quite make the grade and knows it. If this were a person it would be someone whose irregularities had developed in them a humble outlook.

Three simple pentagons but imagined as personality traits they became wildly different beings: one staunch and reliable with an absence of decoration, one with high maintenance issues and a sharp attitude, and, the last a humble soul aware they don’t quite fit.

And so this activity led me to ask what are the qualities I aspire to in myself, what are the qualities I aspire to and then… what shape is suggestive of them….?

For example, oddly, one of my top three aspirational qualities is

“Entertaining / Humour”

Or to put it another way:

“To make things ‘lighter’ for others”…

So instead of a clown’s face (which is too obvious a shape) I thought that I could represent that quality with a series of light “bubbles” or circles, delicately floating, spaced widely. Something to convey ‘lightness’, ‘levity’ and a feeling of freedom.

And so I begin a “conceptual” coat of arms… shapes that express what I aspire to be. Shapes that impact by their very geometry the emotion I am trying to represent.


My conceptual coat of arms has begun. I intend to add more. Perhaps something that represents truth alongside the levity of humour. Not using the ancient language of heraldry but the universal (I think) language of shapes, design and how they make us humans feel. And like all conversations like this I feel inevitably drawn into the moral impression I leave.

Do people feel as I’d like in my presence?

Am I a welcome gap in a totalitarian crowd?

So, how did you read the shapes above? Did you agree with my reactions or my companions?

And, more importantly, what shape evokes the essence of YOU?

Daily Connect

Musings on Life, Self Awareness, Art, Spirituality, Poetry

Rick Johnston

Written by

ex Theologian | Writer | Songwriter | Northern Irish | (h)uman(ist) | Startups | on the shores of Belfast Lough.

Daily Connect

Musings on Life, Self Awareness, Art, Spirituality, Poetry

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