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The bouba/kiki effect used in character design

The bouba/kiki effect used in character design

The bouba/kiki effect is a non-arbitrary mapping between spoken sounds and object visual form. Wolfgang Köhler used nonsensical words to document it for the first time in 1929. The effect has been found in American university students, Tamil speakers in India, young children, and newborns, as well as with familiar names. It is missing in those who are born blind and decreased in people who are autistic. fMRI has lately been used to examine the impact.

In psychological experiments first conducted on the island of Tenerife (where the primary language is Spanish), Köhler showed forms similar to those shown at the right and asked participants which shape was called “takete” and which was called “baluba” (“maluma” in the 1947 version). Although not explicitly stated, Köhler implies that there was a strong preference to pair the jagged shape with “takete” and the rounded shape with “baluba”.

This picture is used as a test to demonstrate that people may not attach sounds to shapes arbitrarily: American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India called the shape on the left “kiki” and the one on the right “bouba”.

The effect is used in character design in many of our favorite movies. Jack Nugent describes how, for a long time, circles, triangles, and squares have had a subtle effect on the viewer’s mood. Circles are cute, triangles are nasty, and squares are uninteresting.

A villain’s features are generally sharper to indicate their harshness—think Maleficent or Darth Vader. The nice men are softer and rounder to seem more cuddly and huggable, similar to Mickey Mouse or Baloo from The Jungle Book. Because squares are squares, they are utilized for dull and old-fashioned characters such as Carl Fredricksen from Up.

Movie Geometry – Shaping the Way You Think, Jack Nungent, Published: October 2016

Gestalt Psychology, Köhler, Wolfgang, Published: 1947

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