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Using sound symbolism in branding

A simple experiment: Take two imaginary names, Maluma and Takete, and before reading on, pair each name with a symbol below, the one you think is a better fit.

Maluma and Takete

If you’re like me (and most others) you’ll give Maluma the curved symbol and Takete the sharp angles. This is also known as the Bouba/Kiki effect, written about by German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) in his book Gestalt Psychology (excerpted below).

Maluma and Takete
Book scan via ofazomi.org

According to an article in Scientific American 98% of people choose the same pairings.

Sound also plays an important role in product alignment. Consider these two, Clorox (producer of household bleach) and Chanel (high-end perfume). Switch the name and product and you get the idea.

Learn more about sound symbolism through these links:

Sound symbolism, on Wikipedia
Phonological clusters of semantically similar words, on LINGUIST List (broken link removed, 2014)
Reflections on the evolution of language, on University of Hawai’i
The phenomenology of synaesthesia, PDF download, on Imprint Academic

Experiment first discovered on the Lexicon Branding website, via Bernadette Jiwa.

My second book on Amazon

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14 comments about “Using sound symbolism in branding”

  1. That’s an interesting find, perhaps it’s something designers already do on a sub-conscious level? If given the two words and asked to create a simple line drawing maybe something similar would emerge.

  2. GREAT little article here – a good thing to be aware of when designing. Sound is an oft ignored aspect of design but obviously also has a very important role. :) Thanks, David!

  3. I remember Stephen Fry doing the Bouba/Kiki test on the contestants of QI.

    Really interesting and it’s always stuck with me when I’m putting together designs.

    Great that you have also brought it up.

  4. I agree with Richard. It’s not a far stretch to imagine that sound would play a role in design. Colour association is fairly obvious, but sound is continuous and so must play quite a large role.

  5. Like most people will have discovered, the answer is pretty obvious, but it’s weird that the association is there in the first place. It’s a fantastic psychological effect.

    It’s a really good example of how as designers, it’s important to get ideas onto paper before going straight to the Mac/PC. That way, the “right shapes” for a logo, for example, may be useful in creating it─forming an integral part of the design process.

    Another interesting post David…

  6. I think so, Richard. At the very least on a subconscious level.

    Must’ve missed that episode, Col (I used to watch quite a few). It’s an experiment to keep in our lockers should a naming or design presentation ever call for it.

    Hi Rikki, Leo, Andrew. Thanks for dropping in.

  7. I can’t say for sure that I wasn’t influenced by the ‘sound’ of the words given. (Though I don’t tend to sound out unfamiliar words that appear to be nonsense. Or that are like fantasy names.)

    I can say that part of my thought process was, “Maluma” was first, so it can go with the first symbol.

    Which leads me to wonder whether or not there was any randomisation done in the order of the words or symbols. There should be four groups. Two with “Maluma” first (one with the curvy symbol first, and the other the angles), and two with “Takete” (same). The Scientific American (which I have full access to) doesn’t mention it. (And in fact uses “bouba” and “kiki” rather than the two words in the post.)

    I also wonder about who they asked. People with different first languages may come up with a different answer. (Though the Wikipedia article with the title “Bouba/kiki_effect” suggests otherwise, at least for Tamil, Spanish and English.)

    When I tried to work out the pronunciation of the second word (after matching the words and the symbols), I thought it would be pronounced as if it were Japanese. That’s because it could plausibly be Japanese written in romanji (written as hiragana: たけて). Yet both “bouba” and “kiki” have the same ‘feature’ (ぼうば & ききrespectively).

    An interesting thing, and I certainly think it would be interesting to see how the effect interacted with design. Anyone want to pay to conduct an experiment? (I can toss in a couple of bob.)

  8. As Michael already pointed out, the words ‘maruma’ and ‘takete’ sound Japanese and that’s what I immediately thought of.

    ‘Maru’ (丸) means circle and ‘ma’ (間) means space, which fits perfectly with the first symbol. ‘Takete’ could have a number of meanings, but my first thought was ‘take’ (竹) for bamboo.

    Kiki is also the name of the witch in a Ghibli animation, while I’m banging on about Japanese…

  9. In saying that, Michael, don’t we get the “sound” of a word just by reading it, regardless of whether we actually say it aloud?

    Takete does sound very Japanese.

    Richard, Spirited Away is a favourite animated film of mine. Some of the Ghibli collection hardly lives up, but that one was very creative.

  10. I’m not sure we do (at least, I don’t necessarily do). Take “Jeschonyk” or “Arsule” or “Sharlz Thicelt”, all names from a book I just finished reading. If you are like me, you see an unfamiliar word that is obviously made up (those names), and I just remember the shape. I don’t try and work out the sound or pronunciation unless it appears easy.

    But, I admit to being strange ^_^

  11. Do you guys think that designers design with this awareness innately, or is there some trend in design that is bucking this trend? I always have a sense of the softness of a brand from its name and sound, as well as what comes in our creative briefs…

  12. This was an interesting article, thank you.

    When I close my eyes and pronounce both words I imagine “Maluma” as a feminine beauty like an Arabian dancer swirling around the dance hall and “Takete” as a masculine roughness like a rounin brandishing his sword.

    It’s also interesting for me that I personally can’t seem to pronounce Maluma in a hard and rough manner and Takete in a soft and smooth manner unless I changed the “l” in Maluma to “r” and add an “i” to Ta”i”kete.

    I had never paid attention to this detail until now, I guess this is one more thing to learn about.

  13. I think that the experiment is a visual reference of phonetics (how air flows through ours mouth and tongue). That association of words (meaning) with picture occurs worldwide. At least in the west side. The interesting thing that follows is that design is univesal. So to comunicate meaning, we have to learn how to say things visually in the proper manner. Thats the mission of designers.
    PD: It would be interesting to see what people think about pictograms or logos from tribes in the jungle that have no conctact with us.

  14. I have seen this a few times before in my life and I am part of the 98% :)

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