Design Principle: Anthropomorphic Form (Or, Why We Buy Stuff that Has a Human Shape)

DesignPrinciples_AnthorpomorphicForm_AussieBottleI still remember when I moved away to college and, for the first time in my life, I was in charge of choosing my own shampoo. It was a purchase decision I had never thought about (or cared about, for that matter) and I didn’t have a clue where to begin. I knew nothing about the chemicals inside and fragrances like “lemon berry” or “strawberry fields” meant little to me; shoot, I didn’t even know if my hair was a normal type or damaged. So, without Mom by my side, what did I have to rely on when making my decision? The packaging, of course! And I’ll be the first to admit, I was drawn to two bottles—Aussie and Fructis Garnier.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized why those bottles may have been more appealing to me. Oh, sure the colors made a big difference (especially with the Fructis Garnier). Partly, the bottles just visually stood out to me against all the other dull, tube-like shaped bottles. But there is a design principle, anthropomorphic form, that suggests human beings are a conceited animal, and that when we see thing things that resemble human-like shapes (even very abstractly), we acquire an affinity for them. Fructis Garnier shampoo bottles don’t exactly look like human beings, but their bottles have more “personality” than, say, the old Paul Mitchell bottles. The Aussie bottle, although very abstract, has the proportions of a female body. Somehow, it seems, I was drawn to these bottles because I could see something human in them.

Coca Cola “Mae West” bottle became famous for its human-like, female curves.

In 1915, The Coca Cola Company created what has now become a classic design: the “contour” bottle. This bottle became quickly known as the Mae West bottle (West was a well-known American actress, playwright, songwriter, and sex symbol of the early 20th century) because it looked like a female body to many. At the time, bottles rarely took on a shape other than a conventional cylinder. Clearly, though, the creation of a bottle that took on human-like characteristics was appealing and many companies over the last century have tried to mimic the concept, incorporating anthropomorphic form into their product and packaging designs.

Scott McCloud suggests that we can draw just about any curved shape, draw a dot in it, and it will look like a face to us.

Comic book artist Scott McCloud has made some interesting suggestions about anthropomorphic form. He notes how we see human-like characteristics in many of the things we see (like how electrical outlets and grills and headlights of cars look like faces). In fact, he notes that we can draw just about any curved shaped, add a dot in one area, and it will look like a face to us. He also notes how abstract a smiley face symbol actually is (two dots and a line) and how we appreciate the symbol as a human face smiling.

What is so compelling about these symbols, McCloud suggests, is that we have a subconscious liking to things we can put ourselves into or have conversations with. We find them appealing because they are like us, even if very remotely. In fact, we even search for ways in which things might be human-like (that electrical outlet on our wall isn’t human in any stretch of the imagination, but we want to see two eyes and a mouth in it).

Method Dish Soap Bottle, nicknamed the “Dish Butler,” because of it’s human-like qualities.

Authors Lidwell, Holden, and Butler (who wrote Universal Principles of Design) claim that even abstract 3-dimensional shapes (similar to McCloud’s 2D shapes) can appear like heads and bodies.  The Method Dish Soap bottle, for example, reflects a large, bulbous head, which triggers a “baby-face bias cognitive wiring,” making us associate the bottle to characteristics of a baby: safe, honest, and pure. If we, even subconsciously, transfer these characteristics to the company that makes the bottle (and if those characteristics are appealing to us for dish soap), we may be more inclined to buy the product.

Perhaps all of this sounds like a stretch. But the next time you find yourself making a purchase choice, pay attention to what packaging designs appeal to you most. Do you find that those that like human-like are more appealing? Chances are, it happens more often than you realize.