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Sound Symbolism

Sound Symbolism

Look at the two shapes above. How would you pair these forms with the following words: Bouba and Kiki?

There is a 95% to 98% likelihood that you paired the sharper sounds (obstruents) of the word “Kiki” with image on the left, and the softer sounds (sonorants) of “Bouba” with the softer image on the right.

As you can see, language carries meaning that transcends its literal definition with associative connotation. This makes developing brand names more than just a question of linguistics. Sound, shape and meaning must complement one another if the brand’s name, logo and logotype are to work in harmony.

Language, be it spoken or written, is the principle means through which most people formulate thoughts and convey them to others. However, we process spoken and written language in different regions of the brain. These distinct areas work together to process meaning.

In the world of brands, NAME is a core signal. Consumers use brand names to identify, differentiate and authenticate a specific brand, and companies use these signals to carry and convey meaning, communicating what makes their brand special. But how is this information processed and how does it affect brand meaning?

Given that sound symbolism has been shown to transcend language barriers, it can be reasoned that letterforms themselves are simply abstract shapes based on the sounds they represent. Below we have overlapped the key letterforms with their corresponding shapes, so you can easily see how the relationship between obstruent and sonorant symbols echo their visual counterparts.

Sound Symbolism

Names are processed sounds and shapes (letters). Because different areas of the brain are responsible for spoken language (the parietal lobe) and vision/reading (the occipital lobe), it is important that a name’s visually and spoken meaning relate. Sound symbolism affects the way brand names are perceived. How a name sounds can affect its market performance as much as what it represents.

In 1929 German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler proved this relationship in psychological experiments conducted on the island of Tenerife. Köhler’s experiment asked participants which shape was called “Kiki” and which was called “Bouba”. He found a strong correlation (95% to 98% commonality) between two abstract shapes (similar to those shown above) and words “Bouba” and “Kiki” (the jagged shape being associated with “Kiki” and the rounded shape with “Bouba”). This became known as the Bouba/Kiki Effect. Later, in 2001, Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran repeated Köhler’s experiment and showed a similar relationship between shapes and words.

As Köhler’s and Ramachandran’s experiments illustrate, sounds and shapes carry not only, common characteristics, but common meaning. The next time you’re evaluating a name, logo or logotype, consider the fact that form follows function.