Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Ovalization of The American Mind

Left: A typical standardized test. Right: DNA blood sample.

As a graduate student at Yale in the late 1980s, I studied with many of the great, late European masters who preached (among other things) the virtues of geometry. Back in those days, our projects were quite literally framed by formal constraints — square constraints. It was believed that the square was unbiased and pure, that it did not privilege one side over another, and that a student was likely to derive a deeper and more lasting understanding of design principles by being held to this standard.

While I could intellectually appreciate the rigor of such limitations, something inside me refused, categorically, to accept this as a defining rule. So I wrote my thesis on the square — its meaning, its history, its identity as something more than just a formal armature for design education. The pursuit of this project enabled me to widen my understanding of the power of geometry to such a degree that a dozen years later, I wrote a book on the circle. I thought I was done.

But then I started seeing ovals. Everywhere.

We live in a world of beveled edges, slanted and softened and practical and user-friendly. If a bevel is defined as meeting another angle at anything but 90°, it is easy to see the slippage that's likely to occur once you start to deviate from pure geometry. So first you slant, and then you curve, and before you know it, everything's a blob. (Future historians may want to note that in today's world, blobs happily co-exist in a state of mutual admiration with thornament.) But blobs are only blobs because they don't subscribe to the universal standards of hard-and-fast geometric principle. And here, it's perhaps worth remembering that in the natural world, geometry has its own formal constraints, which we tend to see as pure because they replicate so flawlessly. (Consider the bilateral symmetry of flower petals, leaves or butterfly wings.)

Which brings us back to ovals, the most human of geometric forms. Scientific visualizations like the DNA blood sample pictured here embrace an ovalesque vocabulary, because DNA would, after all, look ridiculous rendered as crisp, bubbly circles. But how about those multiple-choice tests? Standardized forms requiring sharp, No. 2 pencils use ovals to correspond to highly automated computerized systems that "read" the data input from each oval: called "bubble-in" tests, they're the same whether you're eight or eighty. There's something oddly arcane about a system that hasn't changed since I was a child. (And it's easy to picture that oval-by-oval alphabetic information being fed into some giant, Eniac-sized mainframe, gobbling up each letter one at a time.) With data-reading software seemingly stuck in the 1960s, it is any surprise that educational testing is such a mess?

So, ovals appear to be the preferred form for hardware, too. Push-button everything — from remote controllers to mobile phones to workout equipment — seems predisposed to ovalize everything we touch. One can imagine buttons being scaled to the oval circumference of an average adult fingertip, but recently it seems that the propensity for ovals has resulted in a morphologically compromised landscape of soft shapes and rounded edges. And nowhere is this more noticeable than in cars, which (with a few exceptions) have enthusiastically embraced everything rounded: fenders, dashboards, you name it. While I'm not advocating a market for squared-off odometers, it is difficult to find a car these days that doesn't look like a cartoon. The glory days of the square sedan are long over, and with SUV's ruling the road, one is hard put to see a straight line anywhere: even Jeep Liberty ("now with flipper glass") and Honda Element ("all about good times") look like someone took a curved vegetable peeler and slivered off the corners. Are such curvatures cosmetically desirable? Aerodynamically sanctioned? Economically prudent? Environmentally preferred?

Such vehicles summon the streamlined aspirations of mid-century modernists — those one-time visionaries whose prognostications always seemed, somehow, to be chanelling Sputnik. In contemporary western culture we thrive on a much more pluralistic sense of identity, which is at once more forgiving (anything goes) and more expansive (really, anything goes). Ovals — emancipated from circular restriction, freed of rectangular rigidity — are a perfect metaphor for the way we live now. They're out of shape and flabby, non-committal and generic — like sensible shoes, practical and monotonous and dull. (I've refrained from mentioning the Oval Office or its oval rug, but we all know there's room for improvement there.) I'm fine with oval-imaged DNA, even with ovals designating alien rain on India. But the oval as a glorious, desirable form — one worth replicating ad infinitum? Far be it for me to preach better living through geometry, but there must be a better way.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Comments [24]

Hm, a lot of loaded language here. "Morphologically compromised?" Are we saying that ovals really want to be circles or squares, but flunked out, to be tarred as some sort of geometric untermenschen? Similarly, "flabby and out of shape" reflects the body fascism rooted in American neo-puritanism, doesn't it?

Maybe "blobitecture" has taken things too far -- I'm no Gehry fan, after all - but in general, oval, kidney bean and similar shapes to me represent childlike wonder, joy, friendliness, approachability, and the acceptance of imperfection.

From a practical perspective, these shapes fit better into our hands. On a remote control, the function of a button shaped like an arrow is more immediately recognizable than trying to scan a grid of perfectly round buttons for the one with a cleverly abstracted arrow symbol on it.

In anime, characters with oversized, potato-shaped heads (and those bean-shaped smiles) are usually funny, friendly, comic relief characters, and this visual language carries over into product design and car design, too. Far better a cartoon car than the cold rectilinearity of a 1981 Chrysler...
aj kandy

Tarred as some sort of geometric untermenschen? NOW who's using loaded language!

But actually, you've got a point — ovals do fit better in our hands. Still, if you stop and consider the amount of theorizing and advocacy (even opposition) that's followed Cubism, Constructivism, devotées of modernism, proponents of minimalism, you could argue that the oval has inherited the legacy yet done none of the work. It lacks, the ancestry, the provenance. (Can you imagine Oskar Schlemmer designing a Triadic Ballet for a rounded-off rectangle? I think not.) I'm arguing, I suppose, for a level of abstraction, a kind of inventiveness with pure form which, when I look at the ovalization of everything, I find to be lacking.
jessica Helfand

A few years ago Steven Skaggs and I were emailing about April Greiman's ovals on the graphics list. He had a good theory about transgressive challenging of the Bauhaus/Yale/Swiss Modernist circle purity thing. It didn't quite sound right to me so I called Sean Adams (who'd been her design director during some of the elipse storm era.) He said he had asked her what was up with all of the ovals and she had said they weren't ovals; they were circles seen at an angle.
Gunnar Swanson

Both Jessica's and AJ's angles seem equally interesting to me. Maybe I have an oval point of view on the matter.

More than likely the ascendence of the oval is tied to a desire to stand out from so may squares. As ovals become ubiquitous no doubt some other shape will emerge as the "new" shape of design. I just hope it's not the triangle. What a headache that would be.
Stephen Macklin

The DNA picture isn't a visualization. It's a photograph of the result of a chemical process, electrophoresis, in which the different elements of a sample of dna are drawn across a sheet by an electrical field. Any blobby or oval quality the marks have is due to a natural statistical blurring. due to diffusion in the gel which holds the DNA, just like the blur filter in photoshop. In an idealized version of the process, without diffusion, each mark would be a thin horizontal line segment, with weight proportional to the intensity of the blob.

Perhaps one possible interpretation of this is that in graphic design the oval is appropriate as a representation of a slightly fuzzy distribution or cluster of qualities, where a sharp-edged rectangle might give a misleading impression.
Theo Honohan

I recall from my art history classes that late 19th Century and early 20th Century art and architectural historians (Wofflin??) were obsessed with tracing the evolution of the Renaissance circle (in a square) to the Baroque oval; some defined the former as pure and the latter as corrupt. All sorts of value judgements went flying back and forth as various camps fomed in support of the various geometries. Your post reminds me that there is a long-standing human fascination with geometric similes that has always existed and clearly still exists in the present. I believe in France there was even a battle of the "ancients" versus the "moderns" that resulted in the stripping of deity from geometry and from a theological point of view, it has been downhill since. Jessica - are you standing with the ancients on this one? - perhaps that's ok - I am kind of a square guy myself.

If ovals and circles were at one time thought to be the embodiment of God's creation on earth and worth numerating over, todays ovals, blobs, and folds are largely, if not completely, the projection of the digital tools at our finger tips. They do open up a whole host of possibilites and allow us to see and examine the world in infintesimal ways that the ancients never imagined. Of course there is an obsession with these shapes at this time. On the other hand, perhaps what you are saying in part is that we do ovals and blobs because we can but, from a circular or sqaure point of view, do we do it because we believe in it?
John Kaliski

It's been ages since I read the pure prose of Flatland: A Romance in Many Directions by Edwin Abbott. It was published in 1880 and spans a sparse 96 pages, but manages to unpack limiting conceptions of a two-dimensional world (read: oval) by embracing the conception of higher (spherical) dimensions. In fact, the Square in this story, is the true geometric rebel, redefining flat thinking by incorporating fantasticly mind-bending theories regarding deep space (read: physics). Everyone should read it!

At any rate, here are two more oval-infused observations: Um, our eyes for one. Yes they are spheres but not if you have astigmatism(s), and of course the much loved (and hated) Elliptical Machine designed for low impact by the father of a marathon runner who observed his daughter's gait and replicated it's ovular fluidity.
Jessica Gladstone

Let us get reminded that this whole "oval as the new (and better?!) circle" school of thought goes all the way from Kepler and his elliptical orbits to Apple's jettisoning of the darn mouse puck. I do suspect it wouldn't do much to inspire support for the guy in the Oval Office as much as it worked for Arthur and his Round Table companions. Thank you for the interesting article — now my day's to be filled with associations of geometric images, would be that I'd subconsciously design blobful of pieces by the end of the day. (BTW, today's recommended reading would be Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, and the subsequent parodies soon after.
Shei Reyes

o00ps, I must have missed your synopsis, Ms. Gladstone. I do agree though — Flatland is a must-read!
Shei Reyes

I think our ability to recognize ovals is in our nature because of our eyes. Our eyes are spread apart to give depth perception, but it also gives us a viewing field that is like a rectangle. There's a reason it's more visually appealing to watch a movie at 16:9 ratio, because that's the area of view our eyes can se the best. Then we just focus on the center and filter out the corners & we're left with an oval. Even standard 4:3 tv sets are a rectangle based on our viewing. Notice how there was never a push to make tv's vertical. Now, if we were a race of cyclops, would we be totally obsessed with squares & circles?

Oval - egg

Oval - a cricket ground

Oval - German electronic artist who pioneers the sound of CDs skipping and malfunctioning

Oval = race track
Circle - life (Bhudda)
Square = public place
Bernard Pez

On a related note is this article by Paul Makovsky and Michael Silverberg in this month's Metropolis: Geometry is the New Blob.
William Drenttel

Interesting... although notice how both images (the standardised test and the DNA image) do happen to conform to a grid system - even though one is 'designed' and the other is found in nature...
Yes there maybe ovals, but they are assembled on a grid... So in these example images the ovals are not "freed of rectangular rigidity" altogether.
Dont get me wrong - in a war of stand alone shapes id choose circles over squares anyday - a circle is beautiful and fluid, a square by comparison is rigid and utilitarian - but for these very reasons, as designers...in fact as humans - we cant really live without either!

One quick note on your title. The ovals are also present in Europe. I think the American mind title is a bit short sighted...

But thanks for the post, you made me aware of all the ovals around me :)
Jurriaan Mous

Let's not confuse the oval with the ellipse. Really, the oval is a failed ellipse. The ellipse, it turns out, is a surprisingly difficult mathematical form. The oval, not so surprisingly is far easier to achieve. Thus many programs offer the 'oval' tool rather than the more beautiful diminishing radii of the ellipse (ok, I'm primarily referring to any Adobe product I've ever used). An oval, simply an arc connecting two half circles is as crude to the eye as a synthetic drum machine on the ear. If, on the other hand, you prefer the electronic creations of say a Brian Eno over the organic sounds of a Leadbelly, then maybe you are not bothered by the oval's Vhs-vs-Beta style victory over the ellipse. Could our own failings (both literal and allegorical) in mathematics have created the ubiquity of the oval? I believe so. Perhaps if we better knew how to create ellipses and elliptical forms, the preponderance of them in our world would bother us less. Then again, what do I know? I had to take Calculus 3 times before passing.

Actually JG, the grid and the repeating patterns found in the DNA electrophoresis print are designed just as much as the standardized test is. The electrophoresis gel (you can make them yourself, actually) is formed by pouring the gel mixture into a mold and letting it set. The mold is generally square or rectangular, and it has several wells at one end for injecting material (in this case, a mixture of dye and DNA). The grid that apparently emerges is produced by forming the wells in the bottom of the gel.

That is to say, though the entire process exploits the speed differential among electrically-charged materials of varying densities, the entirety of the process is designed. The different rows in the columns appear because some fragments of DNA are larger than others, and thus move more slowly towards the pole. (Conversely the smaller fragments move faster and appear toward the top of the gel.) As Theo said, the ovals are the result of blurred rectangles (each item in each row should be an echo of the well's shape, but diffusion blurs the distribution).

I also think it's worth remembering that "hard and fast" formal constraints placed upon geometry are only relevant for a certain scale at a certain frame of reference--and bilateral symmetry is never perfect.
the Brightside

I like ovals. They are like circles with more character -- they have tension, direction, energy. If you work a lot with ovals, then circles start to look very boring.

I like pr's point about ellipses though -- I'd say they're ovals with refinement... the mathematical perfection of the oval.

Turns out those now-ubiquitous oval car stickers have a rather distinguished provenance: in 1969, the United Nations introduced the practice, within Europe, of adding a sticker with a country code to your vehicle so officials could identify your point (country) of origin. The UN design specs were very clear: "Letters shall be painted in black on a white ground of elliptical form with the major axis horizontal." As recognizable (and practical) as they may be, the newer ovals, despite adding letterforms, remain cryptic: I assumed this one was for an ex-girlfriend until I read the description.

Jessica Helfand

Two psychological facts about rounded shapes:

* rounded shapes are more female, than male
* it is more positive. angled shapes means negative (emotional)

Look at yourself do you see squares, look around we live in the rounded world.

i think man has always wanted to be perfect and has tried to do so by making things more rigid with eucleidian geometry, but as time has passed by and as man has experimented a lot with rigid geometric forms , there has been a need to let go of rigidity and become more flexible. so i think at this point of time where one would consider a very eclectic approach to design the bending of the straight lines have occured and first it was like slanting the line from orthogonality, then in guess the "bending".

Nothing really travels in a straight line for far. Eventually all space curves... All systems are subject to the same entropic decay and sooner or later we'll all lose structural integrity and sag into soft, tired ovoidity. Why put it off?




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