Event Design and the Psychology of Pattern

Last week’s subject — the psychology of color — was largely made up of a long list of well-defined colors and the associations with each. This week, our event design experts are going to help you understand your own design choices by delving into the psychology of pattern, but there is no list of well-defined patterns short enough to fit into a blog post. So this article will be slightly more paragraph-y and slightly less bullet-point-y. Let’s dive right in.

Opening Note: These three elements (color, pattern, and texture) are not independent entities, each exerting its own influence. Rather, the three work in concert to create a single effect. To wit, the green of a tree frog is very much the same as the green of a certain kind of iMac — but because of the hard/abstract-ness of an iMac, it evokes a very different mood (even when photographed out of context, such as an extreme closeup) than the rubbery/organic-ness of a tree frog.

Organic vs. Geometric vs. Abstract Patterns
The three basic categories of pattern are organic, geometric, and abstract.

  • An organic pattern is any pattern found in, or attempting to carefully duplicate, a natural phenomenon such as a fern frond or a seashell. For example, a fabric that displayed fairly accurate fish skeletons would be organic.
  • A geometric pattern is any pattern that is comprised of a combination of geometric shapes. Herringbone is a geometric pattern.
  • An abstract pattern is somewhere between the two — a human simplification of an organic pattern. A pattern comprised of drawn Goldfish crackers would be abstract.

Geometric patterns trigger feelings of rigidity, artificiality, formality, predictability, precision, linear movement, and a sense of direction. Organic patterns trigger feelings of flow, naturalness, adaptability, spontaneity, haphazardness, circular movement, and a sense of possibility. Abstract patterns can evoke any of these feelings depending on how the pattern is constructed and it’s greater context.

The Basics of Organic Patterns
When using organic patterns, you must take care to evoke the aspect of the natural world that you want. For example, a series of empty half-seashells can be used to evoke the ocean, or the aftermath of a small feast, or the death of the shell’s former inhabitants (among others). Or a speckled-fur pattern you’re hoping will call to mind soft, cuddly baby animals might well trigger a flashback to Bambi and an episode of post-traumatic animated-burning-forest disorder. Search for the worst way to read the natural ambiguity of your pattern, and make sure that doesn’t countermand the theme.

The Basics of Geometric Patterns
Every shape has its own psychology, much like colors. Circles evoke flow, eternity, perfection, unity, movement, restriction, containment, and wholeness. Rectangles evoke solidity, rationality, order, logic, conformity, security, predictability, boringness, and formality. Triangles evoke dynamism, direction, tension, a “higher order” of complexity, aggression, masculinity, and control. Five-or-more-cornered shapes represent mystery, the arcane or occult, and the unattainable, with the exception that a collection of ordered hexagons instead acts very much like rectangles.

The Basics of Abstract Patterns
In short, abstract patterns should be treated much like organic patterns, with the additional caveat that abstract patterns necessarily put the view in an abstracted perceptual state. In other words, a series of half-empty oversimplified clipart seashells might call the same subjects to mind as an image of the real shells, but the reaction will be much more intellectual and much less visceral. This can be a very good thing if the subject matter is particularly off-putting, like tooth decay.