The Use of Basic Shapes and Colour in Design / The Influence of the Bauhaus

 Triangle, Square, Circle: A Psychological Test

1. Fill in these three forms with the colours yellow, red, and blue.

The colouring is to fill the form in each case.


2. If possible, provide an explanation for your choice of colour below.

Use of Basic Shapes and Colour in Design

Wassily Kandisky’s test

In 1923 Kandinsky circulated this questionnaire at the Bauhaus, asking respondents to fill in a triangle, square, and circle with the primary colours. He hoped to discover a universal correspondence between form and colour, embodied in the equation blue=circle red=square and yellow=triangle.


A regular outcome of this test nowadays is a red triangle a yellow circle and a blue square. Mainly because a red triangle represents a traffic signal, a warning triangle, and a yellow circle resembles the sun.

Kandinsky achieved a remarkable consensus with his questionnaire in part, perhaps, because others at the school supported his theoretical ideal. The equation of yellow triangle, red square, and blue circle inspired numerous projects at the Bauhaus in the early 1920’s, including a baby cradle by Peter Kelder and a proposal for a wall mural by Herbert Bayer, although in later years some members of the Bauhaus dismissed Kandinsky’s fascination with these shape and colour combinations as utopian aestheticism.

While some designers today will still argue about the validity of such combinations the basic ideas of the Bauhaus are still taught in schools, colleges and universities toady and has been a basis to modernist design education since the 1940’s

The Bauhaus

I believe the Bauhaus was the real foundation to simple design used to its full potential.

Bauhaus is the common term for the Staatliches Bauhaus, a school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts, and for the approach to design that it publicised and taught. It operated from 1919 to 1933. The Bauhaus school was founded by Walter Gropius. The name Bauhaus stems from the German words to build and house. Ironically despite its name and the fact it’s founder was an architect, the Bauhaus did not have an architectural department for the first several years of its existence. Bauhaus style became one of the most influential current in modernist architecture and modern design.

The Bauhaus had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design and typography.

The school existed in three German cities (weimar 1919 to 1925, Dessau from 1925 to 1932, Berlin from 1932 to 1933), under three different architect-directors (Walter Gropius from 1919 to 1927, Hannes Meyer from 1928 to 1930, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1930 to 1933). The changes of venue and leadership resulted in a constant shifting of focus, technique, instructors, and politics. When the school moved from Weimar to Dessau, for instance, although it had been an important revenue source, the pottery shop was discontinued. When Mies took over the school in 1930, he transformed it into a private school, and would not allow any supporters of Hannes Meyer to attend it.

Basic Shapes

However I believe the use of basic shapes had been around before the Bauhaus for example in the Cubism movement where people like Picasso thrived there is obvious use of basic shapes to create art.

The use of basic shapes continued into the Bauhaus and was used on many different mediums such as soviet posters. It has continued through ever since. You will hear many modern day designers or artists saying how they are influenced by the Bauhaus or the minimalist approach which is I believe basically the Bauhaus approach. Or that have always been influenced by a certain artist such as the popular choice of Kandinsky who produced many famous pieces such as Composition vii.

Shapes themselves

In visual art shape can be defined as simple or complex, geometric or natural, and abstract. A shape may combine different qualities, for example one shape can be both simple and natural, and another shape can be simple, geometric, and abstract.

The simple shapes are the square, rectangle, circle, ellipse, and triangle. These are the basic forms that are used as the foundation for all other shapes.

Squares and rectangles are the most common shapes in man-made objects. From architecture to the arrangement of text on a page to the page itself, most of what people encounter on a daily basis is composed of squares and rectangles. Because so much of the man-made world is composed of these shapes, squares and rectangles are familiar safe and comfortable, but their uniformity can also create a conservative or rigid effect. They can be used to suggest stability and truth. Squares are considered to be one of the most honest shapes, even more than other types of rectangles, because of their mathematical and visual simplicity.

Triangles suggest action because of movement from the corners “pointing” in a direction. Equilateral triangles are the most stable of the triangle shapes because all sides and angles are the same. Triangles can suggest growth or “reaching the top”.

Circles suggest infinity, completion, softness and security. Many ancient cultures considered the circle to be a perfect and even a sacred form. Circles are useful for focusing attention because of the closure of the shape, and because they are less common in man-made objects than shapes with straight lines. Ellipses are the psychology of circles, but to a lesser extent depending on the how close they are to a true circle.

Basic shapes are used in all areas of design and are very prominent within logo design. This is because logo designs don’t need to be elaborate, and usually work best when they are kept simple. So simple shapes work beautifully, they are memorable, easy on the eye, and instantly recognisable.

There are so many things you can create using only the basic shapes. If you group many together you can create interesting patterns.

You can make one shape from another — such as the group of circles that form a triangle, in the illustration.

Alternating direction or colour, disrupting a pattern with another shape or a shape out of alignment can add interest or suggest abstract ideas. A triangle alone or a series of overlapping ones can “point” in one or more directions.

Using Colour

Using colour and shade on a design be it a web page or graphic element can perform many things to the user or viewer.

Colour can help the balance of a design. Balance is the distribution of heavy and light elements on the page. Larger, darker elements appear heavier in the design than smaller, lighter elements. The principle of balance can help draw the viewer to the element you want them to focus on first.

Colour can obviously help with contrast however, when most people think of contrast, they typically think of colours or black and white. But there is more to contrast than color. You can have contrasting shapes (square vs. circle), or contrasting sizes (large vs. small), or contrasting textures (smooth vs. rough).

Colour can also help to emphasize something on your page. Emphasis is what the eye is drawn to in a design. It’s tempting to give everything equal emphasis or try to emphasize everything in a design, but this ends up making the design bland and flat. Instead it is good idea to determine the hierarchy of the page and then apply the emphasis to the elements based on that hierarchy.

Other elements in design

Obviously there are still many other factors to consider when designing a site or graphic piece.

You are likely to need to consider the rhythm involved in your design. Rhythm is also called repetition. Rhythm brings an internal consistency to your Web designs. Patterns are easy for humans to comprehend, and repetition provides patterns that make your site easier to comprehend.

Also unity is very important in your design. Unity is also called proximity. It is the principle of keeping like elements together and diverse elements further apart. Unity pulls elements together. However the last two factors are likely to naturally happen if you can focus on a “simple” design. Using basic shapes and good use of colours can make or break a site.

I believe that if the basics of using simple shapes in interesting ways and the use of colours are followed we can have a range of results depending on what we want to achieve. Simple shapes and colours does not mean rigid flat design, used in the correct ways I feel that great designs can lead from simplicity and the Bauhaus is a prime example.