bouba and kiki

Do you think the spikier shape on the left is kiki and the rounded one on the right is bouba? If so, you have just proven something called the bouba/kiki effect.* Wolfgang Köhler, a German-American psychologist, first observed this phenomenon in a group of Spanish speakers in 1929. In 2001, neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard expanded upon this study. They posed the same question to English-speaking college students in the US and Tamil speakers in India. The majority of participants said the curvy shape is bouba and the pointy shape kiki. These results suggest that there is a universal understanding of abstract concepts based on shapes and sounds.

How did I, as an illustrator, stumble upon this psychological phenomenon? As with many things in life, it involved a lot of coffee, detours, and internet rabbit holes.

My family hails from Taiwan, where my grandma grew up speaking Japanese and Taiwanese. I grew up speaking English and Mandarin, and have always wanted to bridge the language gap between us. This led me to a “Meta Skills for Language Learning” class, where my teacher introduced us to the bouba/kiki effect. After three degrees of Wikipedia hopping, I stumbled upon the notion of ideasthesia and was immediately captivated: “a neuropsychological phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like sensory experiences (concurrents).” The more I dug in, the more I saw how this seemingly unrelated concept might inform my work as a commercial illustrator. This lens for interpreting the world has the potential to not only guide our work but also reignite confidence in our creative instincts.

Where did these ideas come from? How do we connect the senses with cognition?

We can trace the origins of ideasthesia to a phenomenon known as synesthesia, “a rare phenomenon in which real sensory experiences evoke sensory experiences that are not directly caused by outside physical events,” according to ideasthesia progenitor Dr. Danko Nikolić. Those who have synesthesia might see a number and register it not only as the number itself but also as a particular color. Those who do not experience synesthesia perceive things in a 1:1 manner. They hear sound, see a color, feel a texture.

3 is green, 5 is yellow, 9 is brown, M is green, and A is red.
This example illustrates associations that someone with synesthesia might make: 3 is green, 5 is yellow, 9 is brown, M is green, and A is red.

Ideasthesia is like synesthesia that is triggered by concepts. The term was first coined by Nikolić, a professor and researcher of psychology. It comes from the Ancient Greek words idea (for concept and meaning) and aesthesis (for sensation and experience). Hence, ideasthesia is the sensing of concepts.

In one study, a participant with ideasthesia perceived red whenever she swam the breaststroke. Swimming the backstroke, however, would evoke lavender.
In one study, a participant with ideasthesia perceived red whenever she swam the breaststroke. Swimming the backstroke, however, would evoke lavender.

Ideasthesia cements the connection between a sensory reaction and a conceptual trigger. This differs from synesthesia, which connects two senses sans cognition.

Another way this manifests is in how different cultures associate sensory traits with concepts. One telling example of this is the stock-chart emoji that many of you may be familiar with.

Different graphs

Why are some graph lines red and others green? For context, the first emoji set was created in Japan, a country in which red represents a rising stock. This association was most likely carried over from Chinese culture, where the color red represents fortune. As emoji use began to spread, some companies took the liberty to redraw the upward trending line in green. This would better resonate with a Western audience, where green represents fortune.

I grew up in the US and sometimes visited Taiwan to see family. Sitting with my stockbroker aunt, it was always a trip to watch the lines go up in red and down in green on the television. I mention this example of cultural differences as a caveat. It is important not to flatten the wide range of human experience while looking for a common thread.

What does this mean for us as designers and artists?

These ideas can help us better intuit how people will perceive our work. Take this graph from Nikolić’s 2016 paper “Ideasthesia and art”:

The space of possible relations between meaning and experience. The contents of an art piece need to be aligned along the diagonal gray area. Source: Ideasthesia and art
The space of possible relations between meaning and experience. The contents of an art piece need to be aligned along the diagonal gray area. Source: Ideasthesia and art

The graph visualizes the relationship between meaning and sensation, in an attempt to determine what is “art.” He posits that art should sit within the “balanced out” range, although one could argue any work that spikes on either of the axes could be considered art. How might we apply this framework to the work we make for our 9-to-5 jobs?

At Dropbox, my teammates and I create illustrations for use in the app, on company blogs, and as ads. Using the above framework, in-app illustrations sit high on the meaning scale. These illustrations should focus on conceptual clarity over aesthetic or emotional impact. Marketing illustrations, by comparison, sit higher on the experience scale, thus prioritizing the opposite.

By using this framework, we can explain the creative decisions we make. As long as people can glean meaning, feeling, or both when interacting with our work, we’ve succeeded.

We can also use these findings to cross-pollinate the sensory and conceptual flowers when ideating. What new insights might come from imagining the sound a color would make? What texture would this brand value feel like? What fragrance should this tagline evoke? While these questions might seem more suited to stretching our creative muscles, they could just as easily inform the work we ship.

people like to see options before making a decision.

Here’s an experience that might be familiar to you: You’re working on a logo for a client and have gone through extensive rounds of feedback and revisions. At the end of the process, you and the client end up going with one of the very initial concepts. A contributing factor to this outcome is that people like to see options before making a decision. According to Psychology Today: “Choices = control = survival — Even though it’s not necessarily true, we equate having choices with having control. Our survival instincts tell us that we’ll survive if we have control. So it’s our powerful unconscious that keeps us seeking control, and it’s the desire for control that keeps us seeking choices.”

When you unpack those formative thoughts, however, you might find you’ve touched on something universal. Once you identify this, you can better share your creative process with the client or stakeholder.


Our craft grows when conveying abstract concepts using tangible elements such as colors, shapes, and lines. For a creative, this is where the challenge (and fun!) lies. In a field that can come off as fuzzy and arbitrary, I’m inspired to see a common logic that underlies human perception and understanding. With this, I hope to plant some seeds of inspiration in the garden that is your practice. I want us, as creatives, to trust our gut and know that our creations might resonate more widely and deeply than we first think.

Thank you to Danko Nikolić, from whom I derived most of the information for this piece.

*This phenomenon applies to majority neurotypical, typically sighted individuals.

Latest in Creative Culture

Artwork I feel joy when...
Tool + KitCreative Culture

Spirit of Joy Planner

Prioritizing joy in our working lives. With this Spirit of Joy Planner and group facilitation guide, we want to design space for joy, and plant the seeds for building a culture that takes joy as a priority.