What is a compound shape?

Written by stephen byron cooper Google
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What is a compound shape?
Controllers for a swarm of robots use compound shapes. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

A compound shape is an irregular area, or image made up from simpler, standard shapes. The term “compound shape” applies not just in graphic design, but also in engineering or Mathematics or surveying where shapes are analysed, rather than created.


A compound shape is one that is easier to manage by considering it as a grouping of simpler shapes. For example, an arched window has two parts, a straightforward square lower section and a hemicycle upper section. Compound shapes do not need to be made up of basic shapes of different characteristics, like a square and a circle, for example. An “L-shaped” area can be considered a compound shape because it is easier to deal with as two separate areas than as a whole.


Measuring an irregular area might involve a complicated series of small edges, corners and angles. A surveyor can calculate the area of a piece of land quicker by splitting it out. Few plots are a perfect square or rectangle with 90 degree angles at each corner. The surveyor would divide an area which has straight sides, looks like a rectangle, but is wider at one end that at the other. In this instance, the area would become a perfect rectangle and a triangular spare area. The surveyor calculates the area of each shape and then adds them together. More complicated outlines would need to be split into a greater number of squares and triangles. Thus compound shapes assist in the measurement of areas and perimeters.

Graphic design

It is difficult to draw the outline of an irregular shape. Particularly on computer graphics, freehand pen movements can be jerky and result in an unprofessional wobbly border. If a designer visualises that irregular shape as a series of smaller standard shapes like squares, triangles and circles. This enables the drawing of the shape to be built up by overlaying standard shapes, which are either pre-drawn, or created with the graphics packages guidance, resulting in cleaner edges and a more professional finish. This process turns the complex shape into a compound shape.


Formation of a complex shape in manufacturing can be made easier if a design, for example carving from wood, is broken down into smaller shapes, treating that object as a compound shape. This method assists in automated manufacturing as it allows a swarm of robots to participate in the formation of a product, each working on a component shape of the compound shape.

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