Anthropomorphism in Visual Design

Call it narcissism, but let’s be honest - there’s a fundamental human desire to recognise ourselves in the world.

The Human Touch

Anthropomorphism (attributing human traits and emotions to inanimate objects) occurs all around us. From boats and planets to cartoon cars, trains and planes, we give them genders and personalities. We animate them and recreate them in our own likeness - even the humble hoover has been given a smiley face and named Henry, to endear it to consumers.

As a designer and illustrator for the past twenty years, recognising this has come in handy; although, on occasion, I’ve had a fight on my hands.  


As the fashion website – one of the highest-profile casualties of the dotcom crash in the 1990s - folded, the badly-branded and dryly-named Bigsave was waiting in the wings to be the next champion of online retail.  As a young, keen designer my suggestion of a rebranding was met with a stony stare across the boardroom, from the 40th richest man in England. Undeterred, I strove to inject life into the unremarkable red shopping bag logo, and did so in its basest form by adorning it with arms and legs. Despite the main branding remaining the same, the national billboard campaign had a stronger profile as a result of my little ‘bag man’.

Then there was Bugbears:

Anthropomorphism particularly comes into its own, when explaining things we fear or can’t fathom. Humans have always done this – in ancient times nature’s wild and threatening forces were the result of angry gods for example – and recognising this tendency proved to be really valuable in the creation of the successful CBBC Bugbears project, helping explain emotions to children. The aim was to give children a platform and community in which they could express their feelings and discuss their worries. Children could make voice recordings and build a humanoid bugbear character symbolising their anxieties. The animated bugbears – synched with audio – came to life as friendly and playful monsters, making this website an instant hit with kids who could log on to air their problems and respond to those of others. In fact, so successful was it, that it won the RTS Award for Innovation and the Big Chip Imagination Award.

Then came Alphablocks:

Education via entertainment is nothing new and a successful proposal to the BBC led to a commission for a new phonics learning show, to be aired on CBeebies.  We immersed ourselves in visiting schools and interacting with pupils and teachers, until it was time to create our affable alphabet-based characters. I was involved in designing the world they inhabited and also, together with a talented illustrator, came up with a set of characters whose personalities expressed the feel and sound of each letter. 

What was tricky with these animated letter characters, was that they had to be recognisible, even when they had their backs to the screen.  Sticking some arms and legs on them wasn’t going to suffice!  Eventually, we came up with the idea of rotating letters as a transparent container, attached to a more traditional face and body. The show ran for two series, alongside an interactive website and a set of phonics books. Nominated for a BAFTA and the Winner of the Prix Jeunesse, it continues to help young children in their first steps towards literacy, today. 

And now, SWEAT! Union

Friendly fitness needs a friendly face.  A fresh project always presents new challenges and an underlying desire to succeed. Having recently joined Webstars, one of the first tasks has been to help out with designs for an ongoing marketing campaign. SWEAT! Union is a new chain of gyms promoting friendly, affordable fitness. One of the elements of their logo is a sweat drop-shaped symbol, which I thought would be a good starting point for adding some anthropomorphic interest and having a bit of fun. Happily, the client liked the idea and SWEAT! now have a small army of droplet characters, working out on an array of equipment and ready to brighten any campaign.

From adding life to a dull design to engaging your audience by using recognisable features, anthropomorphism certainly brings projects to life, but there’s a time and a place for it. Not all companies or projects would benefit from this technique - hence my continued resistance to repeated requests from my MD to stick some arms and legs on the Webstars asterisk :)

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