The story of humanity’s favorite shape began for me with Brice Marden (although I didn’t know it at the time). I fell in love with painting at college, and took a summer session at the New York Studio School to explore how art might fit into my life and career. A guest instructor asked us to draw a rectangle on a rectangular piece of colored paper. I thought it was the stupidest assignment I’d ever heard, and decided to study history and politics instead of art, which seemed so impractical and socially disengaged in comparison.
I had no idea that the long-haired artist with the odd drawing lesson was a giant of minimalism, one of the most important legacies of modern art and design, and famous for lyrical, loopy works on canvas, which no less than The Museum of Modern Art would feature in his own retrospective.
I was even more shocked to realize a third of a century later when attending my first UX class at General Assembly, that an entire industry is now based on drawing rectangles on rectangles. Wireframes are the skeletons of user experience, everything else just skin.
There’s nothing natural about rectangles. Except for the rare or microscopic crystal, plankton, or cell, we mostly encounter those we make. So why do we insist on using them to live, sleep, eat, learn, and frame nearly every single thing we see, often preferring them even to interacting directly with each other?
Why is this synthetic form so integral to how we’ve chosen to experience life? Books, buildings, beds, tables, windows, doors, frames, courts, walls, screens, screens, and more screens—and almost everything designed for them—are shaped by two sets of right-angled parallel lines. It seems especially strange when all of our natural instruments for sensing the world are round: our eyes and field of vision, our nostrils, ears, mouths, tongues, finger tips, etc. Even camera lenses are round, but photographs rectangular. What’s that about?
Here are three hypotheses (any or all of which may apply):
- PSYCHOLOGICAL. People may instinctively prefer certain shapes over others, maybe due to subtle evolutionary factors. The advertising industry has plenty of theories about circles suggesting wholeness and love, triangles anger and movement, rectangles strength and stability. But I’m not sure how solid the evidence is about all of these underlying emotions and associations; some studies show such reactions may vary by gender, culture, etc.
- “GOOD” ECONOMICS. Rectangles are just more efficient at doing the things for which they're used: they make better use of space and materials, and just get the job done more easily than other shapes. But technological change can make prior constraints obsolete. For example, user interfaces are often based on photographic imagery, traditionally a rectangular medium because that was the cheapest way to manufacture film and prints—both now irrelevant concerns in the age of digital imagery.
- “BAD” ECONOMICS. We're just plain used to them, even if that makes no sense anymore. Whether due to path dependence, such as why keyboards still use QWERTY, anti-patterns or dark patterns, such as when companies try to trick users into buying goods and services they don’t really want, there could be many complex historical factors at play that may have once served a purpose or still serve special interests, but do not reflect the needs of the general public today.
No doubt the grid provides many advantages for navigating our world. But for me, the big question is: will we ever escape the tyranny of the square (which is just a special rectangle after all)?
I know what you're thinking: rectangles are NOT your favorite shape. How can I be so presumptuous to assume rectangles are everyone's favorite shape? Well, couldn't you forgive an alien looking down on our species huddled inside millions of little boxes and scurrying about in millions of rectangular vehicles (from the smallest Mini to the largest freight train) for assuming we've got a bit of a shape preference? They'd also be watching us from their flying saucer unless they're Borg—revealing how even our most-forward-thinking sci-fi imaginations see circles as advanced design and cubes as tyrannical.
I personally would hate to favor such a stupid, evil shape. But then again, I'd have to admit that even my own patented invention, the defEYE® frame, is essentially a rectangle on a rectangle.
How's that for coming full circle?!