From high school English, you remember “onomatopoeia” right? Of course you do. This six-syllable tongue-twister is one of the language’s most awkward words, but it describes one of the coolest concepts: words that sound like their meaning. Boom! Blast! Screech!
“Slither” has a slithery sound. “Whisper” is, well, whispery. Something that’s “itchy and scratchy” kind of makes you want to, well, you know. These words’ very sound evokes the feel. That’s amazing, when you think about it. It’s almost like we humans are wired that way.
(“Sound symbolism” also affects the way we instinctively react to people’s names. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff contends that Donald Trump would never have been elected president if his name had been Donnie Thwimp. You can hear and feel the difference. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/a-spoiled-brat-named-litt_b_12184226.html. )
What’s that got to do with logos? As it turns out, a lot, because sounds and shapes and perceptions are all mashed together in our mental wiring. For instance sharp, explosive sounds like “kah”, “tah” and “pah” make distinctive impacts on our perceptions — different from softer, more ‘open’ sounds like “boo” and “lah”. That’s not all. People automatically associate sharp sounds with sharp, angular shapes, and softer, rounded sounds with soft, rounded shapes.
Psychologists have studied this phenomenon for generations. It even has a name. They call it the Bouba-Kiki Effect — “bouba” exemplifying rounded sounds and “kiki”, sharp ones, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect.
When researchers show people two shapes — one rounded, one sharp and angular — and ask which is “kiki” and which, “bouba”, nearly everyone makes the intuitive matchup between sound and shape. Theorists offer different explanations, but no one knows for sure how or why we humans seem to be wired this way. (Curiously, the Bouba-Kiki Effect is weaker in people diagnosed with autism. No one knows why.)
The Bouba-Kiki Effect reminds us that visual cues including shape — and color and other attributes — affect people’s reaction to a logo in subtle yet powerful ways. This reaction, in turn, gives people an instant gut-level perception of your brand. It happens at a glance, and can affect whether or not someone will buy from you, or even click to visit your website or social media page.
As you might imagine, soft lines and curves give a logo a more feminine feel. Compare the logo of Febreze, a product generally targeting women, with that of Dodge Ram trucks. It’s easy to spot the difference. This has nothing to do with sexism; there are plenty of exceptions on both sides. The logo of Victoria’s Secret is highly “feminine”. Yet its “Pink” sub-brand aimed at a younger crowd has a bold, blocky logo, aggressively contrasting with the “Pink” name and signature color. You can bet a lot of thought went into that.
Many logos, like Ikea, seem neutral with regard to sharpness/roundedness. But there are many other attributes that give a logo (and your business) its distinctive personality. For instance: in many cases I’ll bet you could tell at a glance whether a business sells construction equipment or financial management, just from its logo’s typography (lettering).
Regardless, keep the Bouba-Kiki Effect in mind when creating a new logo. And think twice when weighing electoral candidates based partly on the sound of their name.