Almost every major social platform crop its users' profile pictures to make it circular. The reason behind this: Circular shape gives emphasis to the center of the image. This also eliminates the background noise and objects that may be present in a picture.
In general, pictures that do not need the user to focus on the center and those that have necessary details all around the photo are square in shape. This representational method wouldn’t do profile pictures much good.
Considering the fact that the trend of profile pictures has now existed for almost two decades, the concept of making the images “circular” is fairly new and got widely accepted only after 2016. Except for Instagram, almost every platform before that time used square as a representational shape for profile pictures.
Square Profile Pictures
Studies suggest that psychologically, square isn’t an ideal shape to use for displaying centric faces, as the shape makes it somewhat strenuous to process the person in the picture. The fact that corners create visual brightness is another reason for the decline of square-shaped profile pictures.
So why did most of the tech-giants stick with squared shaped profile pictures for so long? The reason behind this is the culture of physical photos. Printed photographs have always been quadrilateral, and once the internet became a common thing, this concept was well implemented in the technology industry. We have always had square-shaped photos in identity cards, passports, and virtually every physical document, choosing easy printing and cost control over the benefits of having circular photographs, which was without a doubt the right thing to do with physical photos.
Round stands out more when everything is square, round is more friendly, people’s heads are round.
Circular Profile Pictures
Now, with almost everything being done behind a screen, the shape of a photo representing an identity of a person is changing from square to circle. Circle brings attention towards the center, where the face is present, meaning a profile picture having a face on the center gets more attention than the one not in the center.
The highlight of a profile picture is the face of the person in it, meaning lesser the background, greater the focus on the face in the picture. A circular profile picture eliminates unnecessary background content; thus making users focus on the face.
A circle has no corners, meaning a circular profile picture wouldn’t create visual brightness on the edge of a picture as it wouldn’t have one.
A circular image, however, doesn’t always work well. A circular image is best suited for representing a single person. For a faceless photo or a photo with more than a few faces, a circular image becomes inferior to a square image.
Twitter adopted the new “circular” profile picture in June 2017, quickly followed by Facebook a few months later. This brought huge criticism from people all over the world, only for every platform to copy it sometime in the future. As of now, only a few big names are yet to change or have very recently switched to a circular representation of the profile picture. These include Github and Viber to name a few, with Github getting its update last week and Viber adjusting to a more soft-edged rectangular profile picture.
To conclude, circular profile pictures make faces easily recognizable than square ones. Easy recognition means people find what they're looking for quickly and in a world that demands speed, every minor boost, and improvement count. If a change in the shape of something that might seem too insignificant to notice affects the overall user experience, it’s a change worth making.