Have you ever heard of the Bouba Kiki effect? It is a term used to describe the phenomenon where people associate certain sounds with specific shapes, even if they have no prior knowledge of the association.
German psychologist, Wolfgang Köhler, first studied the Bouba Kiki effect in the 1920s. Köhler presented study participants with two abstract shapes – one round, curvy shape, and the other sharp and jagged, and two made-up words, “bouba” and “kiki,” and asked them to match each word with a shape.
Remarkably, the participants overwhelmingly matched “bouba” with the round, curvy shape and “kiki” with the sharp, jagged shape.
Since then, this effect has been replicated in studies using different languages and cultures, indicating that it is a universal phenomenon.
Researchers believe that the association between sounds and shapes is not learned but innate or hard-wired in the brain.
But why does the Bouba Kiki effect happen? One theory is that the sounds we hear affect our perception of the world around us because they activate certain brain areas involved in processing visual information.
For example, the part of the brain that processes shape may light up when we hear the sounds “bouba” and “kiki,” which could explain why we associate them with certain shapes.
The Bouba Kiki effect has been used in various applications, such as branding and marketing.
Companies have used the effect to create product names based on the association between sounds and shapes.
For example, one may assign a name with more vowels and soft consonants to a product with a round, curvy shape, such as “Oreo” or “Coca-Cola.” In contrast, another could assign a name with harder consonants, such as “Xtreme” or “Powerade,” to a product with a sharp, jagged shape.
Below are a few examples to illustrate how the Bouba-Kiki effect influences our perception of shapes, sounds, and designs in various aspects of life.
The Bouba-Kiki Effect Examples
1. Bouba-Kiki Effect on Drinks
Example：Black coffee vs milk chocolate.
The connection between taste and shape highlights how our sensory experiences are interconnected in a baffling manner. For instance, black chocolate is known for its sharp and intense flavor and, therefore, may be linked to the sharp edges of the “Kiki” shape. In contrast, milk chocolate has a smooth and creamy texture and may be connected to the rounded curves of the “Bouba” shape.
2. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Architecture
Example：The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida, USA vs the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Buildings with sharp lines, intricate shapes, and edges are often associated with bold, modern designs and evoke a sense of power or modernity. Rounded structures are often associated with elegance and sophistication and convey comfort or harmony.
Therefore, in our example, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida, USA, can be matched to “Bouba,” and the Guggenheim Museum is matched to “Kiki.”
3. Bouba-Kiki Effect on Natural Landscapes
Example：The Himalayas vs Chocolate Hills in the Philippines.
Jagged edge mountains have sharp, angular peaks and ridges. For instance, the high peaks of the Himalayas jut sharply pierce the sky, creating a jagged skyline that is unmistakable. These mountains evoke a sense of grandeur or strength and are often associated with harsh, abrasive sounds, such as metal screeching against metal.
Rolling hills, on the other hand, might feel more gentle and serene. They feature sweeping curves and rounded slopes that flow gracefully down to the valley below. When we think of the landscape of the Chocolate Hills, we might unconsciously associate them with soft and soothing sounds, like the gentle rustling of leaves in the wind.
4. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Shapes
Example： Shape of cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle and Lamborghini
Cars with rounded shapes, like the Volkswagen Beetle, are often associated with cute, friendly designs. Their design gives the vibe of a softer and friendlier look that is meant to appeal to people looking for a fun and cute car.
In contrast, cars with sharp, intricate shapes, such as a Lamborghini, are often associated with aggressive, robust designs. These designs appeal to people who love a fast, powerful, and dominating car.
5. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Sound
Example： Animal sounds
Some sounds made by animals have a soft, rounded shape, while others give a more harsh sound.
The sound of a cat meowing gives the vibe of a rounded sound, while the sound of a dog barking has a sharp, hard sound.
The same applies to sounds such as the hissing of a snake and the mooing of a cow which are associated with the “Bouba” shape, and the baaing of sheep and the trumpeting of an elephant are regarded as sharp sounds which take the form of the shape of “kiki.”
6. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Food
Example： Crunchy snack vs a soft chocolate cake for dessert.
Crunchy foods have sharp, angular shapes. For instance, chips or crackers are often shaped in jagged, angular shapes to bring out their crisp texture. They are therefore associated with “kiki” since biting into a crunchy food produces a sound that is similar to a sharp, cutting noise, thus reinforcing the impression of sharpness.
Soft and creamy foods such as chocolate cake look round and smooth and are therefore associated with “Bouba” because of the swirling, circular patterns often used to decorate these desserts.
Also, soft and rounded foods, such as cupcakes, are often associated with sweet, delicate flavors. In contrast, hard foods with a sharp shape, such as pretzels, are often associated with crunchy, salty flavors.
7. Bouba-Kiki Effect on Body Language
Example: A sad or upset person vs a happy and confident person.
When people are sick, angry, nervous, or grumpy, they tend to be closed off and unapproachable, which conveys the idea of an anxious or insecure person. Appropriately, “Bouba” is used to identify sad people as they appear rounded even from their posture.
A happy and confident person tends to be open and sharp. Often, a friendly person is regarded as hyper and loud, especially if they are mostly happy and energetic. This body language, in turn, is translated as “Kiki.”
8. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Musical Instruments
Example：A saxophone vs an electric guitar.
Instruments that produce soft, rounded sounds, such as saxophones, are often associated with jazz and other mellow music. Instruments that produce sharp, hard sounds, such as electric guitars, are often associated with rock and other loud music.
Harsh, percussive sounds, such as hard metal music, may accompany visuals of sharp objects in a film, while softer, melodic tones, such as opera music, match scenes featuring round, gentle imagery.
9. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Visuals
Example： Tesla vs Domino’s Company logos
A jagged, angular logo might be more associated with a high-energy, intense brand than a soft, rounded logo.
Consider the Tesla vs. Domino company logos. For Tesla, the jagged edge logo conveys a sense of strength, boldness, and innovation. The sharp lines and angles give the logo a futuristic feel, aligning with the company’s goal of revolutionizing the automotive industry. Appropriately, the Tesla logo is associated with the “Kiki” shape.
On the other hand, Domino’s rounded logo gives the company a softer, more approachable image. It conveys warmth and friendliness, which aligns with the company’s focus on delivering fast and friendly services.
10. Bouba-Kiki Effect in Animals
Example： Fox vs Panda
Foxes are sleek, agile predators known for their sharp senses and cunning intelligence. When you hear the word “fox,” you may associate it with sharp angular shapes that reflect these characteristics. If you were to draw a picture of a fox, you might include pointy ears and a triangular snout to capture its features.
On the other hand, Pandas are fluffy, adorable creatures that are beloved worldwide for their playful antics and docile nature. The word “panda” brings to mind soft, round shapes that reflect a panda’s qualities. A panda drawing might include a round face and a plump circular body to convey cuteness or gentleness.
The Bouba Kiki effect is a fascinating phenomenon that highlights how the sounds we hear influence our perception of the world. While psychologists are still studying the exact mechanisms behind the bouba kiki effect, it has important implications for fields such as psychology, marketing, and design.