The visual language of virtual product design: the semiotics of colour and shape in smartphone app icons

Ford, Samantha Annabelle (2019). The visual language of virtual product design: the semiotics of colour and shape in smartphone app icons. University of Birmingham. M.A.

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A product’s colour and shape conveys crucial information about what the product is, what it does, and how well it performs (Kumar & Noble, 2016). Product appearance research has focused on physical goods, foodstuffs, and packaging; however, many of the products consumers interact with are not physical in nature, but digital. This thesis presents findings from two studies that analysed how colour and shape in smartphone app icons convey meaning and their impact on smartphone users. The relationship between these visual elements and consumer behaviour was assessed by app downloads instore and smartphone user evaluations of app icons.

Colours tended to play attention-grabbing, aesthetic, and symbolic roles that created visual contrasts and coherence, and served as identifiers for the app’s brand, category, and function. Shapes were found to convey more specific information about the app’s category, function, and ergonomic value, as they related to objects and structures we recognise in our environment. The figurative and distinctive uses of colours and shapes did not reliably connect with higher download rates. Their limited impact on smartphone users’ evaluations suggests that colour and shape may require additional cues to contextualise them in app icon design and make them more meaningful to consumers.

Type of Work: Thesis (Masters by Research > M.A.)
Award Type: Masters by Research > M.A.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of English, Drama and Creative Studies, Department of English Language and Linguistics
Funders: Other
Other Funders: University of Birmingham, College of Arts and Law
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
T Technology > TS Manufactures


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