Saturday, July 20, 2024

A mostly asymmetrical, rounded-corner trend in design is seen from top, in marketing for CVS/pharmacy, Toyota (in an ad on The New York Times’ website), The Daily, Cambridge’s Think Tank eatery and bar, The Boston Phoenix alt-weekly and Jamba Juice.

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, we were given free rein and chose to look at a seemingly new element in graphic design.

Whether they’re circles with corners or rounded squares, they’ve become strangely common in the past few months in advertising products from Toyota to Jamba Juice.

Let the sharp corner of the circle point up and the shape could be a tear; let it point down and it more resembles a leaf, a suggestion only enhanced when two opposite corners are sharp and the other two left rounded, as Toyota did in a January ad campaign touting its green technology (albeit in teal and gray, not green). The logo of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad news app, The Daily, serves up yet another variation, in which all the corners are almost-not-quite sharp corners but are actually rounded.

At Think Tank, the Kendall Square “bistrotheque” restaurant and club catering to the innovation crowd, managing partner Jay Leo said there was another shape in mind: “It’s supposed to be a thought bubble,” he explained in May, while a political fundraiser rich in tech types swirled around his bar.

Cantabrigians and Bostonians may be more used to the shape than the rest of the country; they began appearing in The Boston Phoenix alt-weekly in various forms in June 2005, called “sardine cans” by Barcelona-based designers Jardí+Utensil. (The design, as explained by Enric Jardí, also includes “lozenges.” The distinctions between the terms aren’t always clear; lozenges seem to more frequently have all rounded corners.)

If this design trend really began here, it likely spread to the rest of the country via the CVS/pharmacy. That’s because the pharmacy and convenience-store chain hired Boston-based Arnold Worldwide to create an entire campaign with the widget, which now shows up in websites created by Canada’s McAllister Media and in some 7,000 sets of window displays by Chase Design Group, of Los Angeles.

And CVS wasn’t thinking of thinking, either, unlike Leo and his partners at the Kendall Square eatery and bar. That much is clear when Chase’s windows have hundreds of the partly sharp, partly rounded shape overlapping in blood red.

What’s this shape all about?

“Rounded corners and softer edges are younger and more friendly,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Psychology at Golden Gate University’s Ageno School of Business, where she teaches marketing management, advertising strategy and consumer behavior. “If a company wanted to appear very professional, very solid, very secure, very corporate, they tended to use more blocky type and harder edges.  At one time that was actually comforting to consumers — that a company was solid and very corporate and businesslike. You wanted to feel like you were doing business with something solid.”

The rounded edges and asymmetry communicate the same message of youth and modernity, Yarrow said, telling consumers a company is not simply doing business as usual. The Daily’s almost-square logo speaks of a tradition of hard journalism delivered in a modern, softer way.

“Today disillusioned consumers are really wanting to see a more human element,” Yarrow said. “A more approachable, gentler, kinder company to do business with.”

That makes sense for a hybrid car, and maybe for Jamba Juice, but seems more calculated when applied to a decades-old pharmacy chain that’s not really changing anything about their business model — except that it’s using more self-checkout machines and thereby hiring fewer people to ring up sales, which makes the use of the sardine cans and lozenges seem (if they were given any thought at all) a bit cynical.

Arnold Worldwide didn’t respond to a request for information on the origins and meaning of its CVS design. One could make the argument there’s not much to say about a shape, especially since things such as this are as prone to trendiness as hemlines or heavy metal, and people can climb aboard without thinking much about what they’re doing.

And certainly consumers couldn’t be blamed for seeing the shapes without giving them much thought.

It begs the question of whether the trend really means anything.

“The more sophisticated companies are looking hard at how symbolism communicates the value and character of their company,” Yarrow said. “We’re increasingly using symbolism to communicate with consumers, because we’re just more visual than we are verbal today.”

Less verbal, eh? Doesn’t that mean we’re literally dumber?