If blobs had an astrological sign, it’d be Gemini. Communicative, mercurial and full of contradictions. Blobs are childlike and simple, yet sophisticated and mysterious. They are free, yet contained. They are fluid, yet crisp. They are fun and friendly, yet elusive. When shown static, they suggest motion. When animated, they are relaxing, yet energizing.
Blobs oscillate between looking organic, hip, retro and freshly innovative. It’s hard to pinpoint them in our cultural history. They appear in nature’s creation of amoebas and lakes. They appear in the works of Picasso, Miró, Dalí and Calder. They appear in alarming quantities in Dr. Seuss’s Bartholomew and the Oobleck and, later, in an anthropomorphized form in director Les Mayfield’s film Flubber. And now, they’re appearing everywhere, in flat colors, in gradients, as static images and in motion. Well, maybe not quite everywhere, but they’ve become noticeably popular.
Actually, it’s hard to say even that. Unlike most design trends, blobs have become increasingly in vogue without becoming rampant.
So, why are blobs flourishing in design now, whether we notice them or not?
Could it be that the blob is the antitrend of graphic design today, a signal of resistance against our age-old conventions of geometry in design and a reflection of our rapidly evolving modern design culture? Or perhaps the answer lies in the complex dualities of the simple blob, which make it a conveniently flexible design tool, full of communicative power for those who know just how to shape it.
A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
Blobs made a splash at the 2018 Adobe Design Summit, where they dominated the event’s visual branding with vibrant colors, distinct textures and intriguing animations. The event’s theme for the year was “Perspective” and had three main principles: diversity and inclusion; blurring the boundaries of 2-D, 3-D, augmented reality and virtual reality; and reimagining what is possible.
Sonja Hernandez, senior design manager at Adobe and leader of the project, says her team created supergraphics that appeared differently depending on where the viewer stood. Quickly distinguishable from across a room, large blobs on walls, banners and more made instant impact and invited interpretations from different angles, complementing the event’s theme and principles. The blobs also provided an easy way to apply aspects of Adobe Design’s branding and showcase Adobe Stock media.
The effect was powerful. Hernandez says, “People at the Design Summit really loved the space and felt like it was an incredibly exciting change to Adobe’s normal corporate branding.”
STANDING OUT WHILE FITTING IN
The unusualness of blobs can do just that—shake things up without going too far.
By using blobs as a “deliberate counter to the often stuffy, pretentious identities [of] universities,” Tom Dabner found a way to distinguish Torrens University, a young institution that recently morphed multiple separate colleges into one entity. Dabner is creative director and partner of SomeOne, a branding studio based in Sydney, Australia. Reflecting on the university’s history as well as the fluidity of the educational process, Dabner landed on blobs, which he calls “morph shapes,” to carry forth the visual identity.
“Building knowledge is an unpredictable and stimulating experience—it can go in so many directions and never sits still,” says Dabner.
Whenever possible, the “morph shapes” moved. But even in print applications, the shapes were intentionally designed and positioned to look like they were in motion, or as though they had been captured just as they were about to multiply or merge together.
The forms worked flexibly as content holders for brand colors and photos, which peeked out of the curved edges, prompting curiosity. Paired with clean, strong typography, they provide endless design possibilities, serving the university’s diverse communication needs while presenting the school as a unique space for creativity.
While the Torrens University branding energizes and invigorates with its brightly morphing blobs, another team found blobs perfect for creating a sense of calm—like, stoner-level calm.
To Kim West, creative director and founder of ALTR Studio in San Francisco, looking at a blob feels instantly relaxing. “I zone out. Similar to when I look at a big aquarium, there’s a sense of calm and unexpectedness at the same time,” she says.
But when West had the opportunity to design the branding for Strange Lands, a cannabis company focused on serving artists and musicians, blobs were not an immediate choice. West says that at first, she and her team only knew what they didn’t want: they didn’t want it to look typical or like a health product.
Thinking of the company’s target clientele, West’s team began looking at media from the 1960s and 1970s, from psychedelic art to liquid light shows. They increasingly noticed how blobs had a calming depth, a mesmerizing property and an ability to exist “somewhere between deep space and underwater.” The more they considered stoner culture of times past and played with blobby forms, they more they felt comfortable—very comfortable—with the emotional effect these shapes elicited.
“We often joked in the studio that if you were stoned while watching [our animated blobs], you might not even notice the movement at first, and then once you did, you’d want to stare at it for a while, much like a lava lamp,” West says.
Juxtaposing organic forms with constructed shapes can create a harmony of tensions even in print applications. Monica Brand and Francisco Lopez, creative directors and cofounders of Mogollon Studio in New York, found blobs to be an effective solution for their poster designs for Love Labo and Accidental Movement, two dance companies. These designs show photos overlaid with blobs—some soft and fluid-looking, others harder and even geometric.
For both projects, blobs were used as abstract illustrations. With the Love Labo event poster, the client wished to make a statement about information saturation in the modern world, so blobs splashed upon a photo of a human concisely represented human-made clutter and debris.
With the Accidental Movement poster, blobs were drawn in rock-like formations, “megalithic shapes” that simultaneously suggested natural formations and human-made tools and sculptures. Brand describes Accidental Movement’s work as “very organic and innovative,” so contrasting photographed leaves with flat blobs set in whimsical colors created a design that matched. As abstract shapes, blobs actively engage the imagination and inspire ideas without a single word—similar to bodies dancing.
CUT OUT FOR THE JOB
Blobs have a visual tactility that invites physical interaction. When brainstorming how to design a preview booklet for Mohawk’s new line of colored papers, Caleb Kozlowski, creative director at Hybrid Design in San Francisco, knew that he wanted to produce something that would prompt people to play with color combinations. After looking at paint chips with viewing windows, he and his team realized that the edge of a color block would be a critical asset to their goal. Soon, they landed upon blobs, cutting them out of colored papers while allowing other colored blobs to peek through. The resulting book, Keaykolour, immediately invites exploration.
“The beauty of the blob is that it leaves room for the viewer to bring themselves to its meaning,” says Kozlowski. “In a way, it is so abstract as to be meaningless—at least on its face. When you strip away the most overt communications of form, you’re left with more elemental traits.”
This makes blobs a particularly apt design choice for the Keaykolour book. Just like elements themselves, each of the 43 colors in the book can be used as part of a palette or individually. Overlapping papers help to show color combinations while still recognizing the individuality of each color. As users flip through the book, they alter both the object and their emotional reaction to the resulting color combinations. “The viewer is the final ingredient that gives a blob direction,” says Kozlowski.
TO SAY IT WITH BLOBS—OR NOT
As companies evolve with technologies and markets, and as they redefine their audiences and goals, designers must find new ways of representing change. Like a candid snapshot, a static blob can symbolize the capture of a fleeting moment. Like a lava lamp, an animated blob can magnify the minutia of transformation while gently comforting us with a hint of nostalgia.
It’s clear that blobs can speak powerfully—even viscerally—in design, evoking a range of emotions from curiosity to calm. But because of their flexibility, they require skillful artistic direction to be implemented effectively.
Sonja Hernandez of Adobe says, “Mentally, I think there’s a bit of a challenge in how to work with a blob and get it to feel confident and intentional in its space. Emotionally, I think blobs offer a lot of depth and possibility. Blobs can feel happy or sad, and usually it’s just some subtle changes in the form or color that impact these possibilities.”
But design skills aside, it’s still hard to imagine blobs swamping our visual landscape the way flat illustrations, Helvetica-esque fonts and gradients have. After all, many subjects just don’t seem suitable for, well, the blobbiness of blobs, like estate planning services, prison boot camps and tombstone manufacturers. Or anything that wishes to convey gravitas, reliability, tradition, discipline, strength and stability. Blobs are simply too irreverent, too playful, too squishy.
Today, the blob seems to be neither a trend nor an antitrend, but rather a highly plastic communication tool and a widely transferable design device. Perhaps it is best left uncategorized, in its vague, undefinable form, playing on the edges of our senses and spilling across the boundaries of our expectations. ca