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The Designer's Guide to Gestalt Psychology

By on Feb 23, 2017 in How To
The Designer's Guide to Gestalt Psychology

A Brief Background Story

Max Wertheimer, a psychologist, was observing a series of flashing railroad lights in 1910 when he had an insight. He related the railroad lights to the lights that go on and off in movie theaters.

He perceived that viewers see the lights as a single light that moves from one bulb to another. The reality is that the bulbs are simply turning on and off. They aren’t really moving. From this observation, a set of principles on people’s visual perception came out. These principles are now the basis for most, if not everything, related to visual or graphical design.

Designing is more than just creating something unique and displaying it to the world. More often than not, when you present your creative designs to somebody, concerns and worries will dominate your mind. One question almost always pops first: What happens to that person when his eyes start looking at your piece of work? What is his reaction to the message you’re trying to convey? As a designer, whether professional or amateur, it's important to consider the answers to these questions.

In visual communication, it is important to understand how a design is being perceived and interpreted. This is a critical process. As designers, you won’t be able to sway people’s perception of your creations if you don’t know and understand how they see or analyze images. Having even just a basic understanding of how viewers see or interpret your design will help you critic your own work. Their observations will also open you up to some interpretations that you may not have thought of.

This article is about the fundamental principles that make up Gestalt – the psychology behind how people react to visual stimuli. We inject these stimuli in every design we present to the world. Gestalt is the basis for all other design principles. This post is a walkthrough to the theories and definition of terms that make up the Gestalt principles. This overview includes essential aspects of design like space, balance, as well as a visual hierarchy.

Defining Gestalt

“Gestalt” is a German word that pertains to a unified pattern, form, figure, or structure. It was in the 1920s in Berlin when Gestalt Psychology took off. It was structured to make sense out of how the human brain sees things in their entirety, rather than the parts that make up the whole.

To understand it more, think about how you instantly recognize a person when you see his or her face. This is considering the fact that a face has different features like the eyes, the nose, and the ears, which are common to all faces. How your mind picks up the face as a whole and relates it to the person you know is what Gestalt Psychology is trying to conceptualize. 

Gestalt Psychology in Design

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In the late 1890s, a Russian psychologist named Pavlov accidentally “discovered” the idea that rewards can influence behavior. Thus, Pavlov's dogs were theorized. He used food as the reward for good behavior, and this system created a huge impact in how the dogs reacted to his stimuli. This was called classical conditioning – one that is still making an impact today on how we do marketing and design.

Gestalt psychologists think that perception, cognition, and learning are not that simple. Breaking them into smaller parts wouldn’t make it much easier to understand them. Gestalt psychologists – like many designers who have been working for a long time now – are more interested in the most complicated concepts involving insight, problem-solving, and holism.

Gestalt-Design-InfographicPin It

Gestalt in Visual Perception

Theorists like Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka used Gestalt in visual perception. They thought of the idea that there are many signals that emerge from various places when one person attempts to perceive the world. To put things in order, to organize these signals and prevent one from going crazy, a person visualizes the world as one form or group – unified. Gestalt psychologists and designers have, since then, been really obsessed about how people decide how some objects go together.

Designing with Gestalt Principles

Gestalt psychologists have listed down the basic principles of visual perception. These have become very important tools for designers over the years. As mentioned, these principles are about how the mind perceives visual imagery and sees everything as part of a group. The following principles are based on the original concepts of Wertheimer in 1923, Stephen Palmer in 1999 and 2002, and other Gestalt theorists of today.

Simplicity

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Simplicity is about how the mind sees everything in its basic, simplest form. Designers should be able to know and understand this concept in order to effectively combine simplicity with creativity. The two can be a great combination for a stunning creation. Mastering simplicity means knowing how to balance simple shapes and objects with visually stimulating effects. Simplicity is about giving the eye the comfortable form that will help it interpret what is being presented.

Figure-Ground

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This is the principle that explains how a person can immediately identify which element in the design is the figure, and which part of the whole design is the ground. The figure is the one in focus while the ground serves as the background of the figure. There are two principles related to this, which should also be understood:

  • Area – The viewer’s mind mostly sees the smallest element in the entire design as the figure and sees the larger one as the ground or background.
  • Convexity – Convex elements are related to figures.

When applied to design, this principle will have a great effect on how the message of the artwork will be communicated to the viewers.

Proximity

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Elements placed closely together are perceived to belong to the same group. Take the case of kerning in letters. Proper kerning helps readers make up the words. Putting too much space between letters would often create confusion on how to read the words – where they start and where they begin.

A very good example of the application of the principle of proximity is the Unilever logo. The logo has small elements that are placed closely together to make a cluster that appears to be the letter U. The Unilever website says the logo was designed with 25 icons in it, which symbolize values that are important for the company.

Similarity

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Elements that appear to look alike are perceived as part of a group. The principle of similarity rests on colors used, the size, orientation, and texture of elements (even fonts). A good example is a multi-page document that uses varying font types and schemes to make readers differentiate the headers from the captions from the body of the document.

Common Fate

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Objects or figures that seem to be moving in the same direction are often seen as a group. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to these objects. The principle of common fate is a huge consideration when doing 2D or 3D designs and animation.

Symmetry

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Elements that are symmetrical or balanced are always seen and perceived to belong to one group. Figures that have mirrored images or those that appear to be reflections of each other are seen as a single object.

Symmetry relates to parallelism where similar lines or slopes are taken as one group. In application, designers would often adjust the text according to the curves or angles in the design in order to make the entire figure look more compact, more unified.

Continuity

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Lines that are continuously plotted on a canvass or objects that are aligned are perceived as one group. Smooth lines often make a unified figure.

Closure

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Closed figures are considered a group. The closure principle applies to logo design. The FedEx logo, for instance, cleverly conceals a right arrow. This has not been spotted for many years by the public. That space between the E and X of the FedEx logo creates the illusion of closure. The two letters appear to be laid out closely together.

Common Region

Common RegionPin It

Elements in a single region are seen as a single group. Badge designs that incorporate text, banner, and objects are all seen as unified.

Connectedness

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Flowcharts or infographics illustrate connectedness. When there is a connection between elements, it is easy to see a unified figure. Arrows connect one element to another.

Gestalt Theory

Gestalt is all about seeing the whole instead of all the parts that make the whole. When people see a group of objects, they would see the entirety and not the small or large details that make up the design. Here are the ideas behind the theory:

Emergence

EmergencePin It

This is the process of making complicated patterns from simple rules. The process of identifying an object first involves identifying the outline. The outline is then compared and matched against the shapes and objects we already know. After seeing the whole image through the outline, we will then start to notice the individual parts. So, when designing, take note that people see the general idea or figure first. A simple object carrying the entire message of the design is more effective than a lot of objects parading here and there without certainty or unity.

Reification

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This is the aspect in which the object is seen to have more spatial elements than what is really presented. Viewers see the design and try to match the outline with what is already stored in memory. While there may not often be a perfect match, the brain will find the one that nearly matches the figure. The brain then fills in the gaps and paint the object based on what the mind sees.

With reification, there is no need to present the complete object for the viewer to know what it is. There can be missing parts in the outline. As long as there is close enough representation, the mind will still catch the drift and find the matching figure.

Multi-stability

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This is the tendency for the eyes to see two things. The viewer can have different experiences at the same time because there are more than one interpretations being triggered. An example is when one could see two faces on the canvas and also see another dominant object.

The two interpretations cannot be seen both at once. The mind will juggle the two ideas and will go back and forth on which is which. One would become the dominant interpretation. The longer time the dominant image is seen, the harder for the eyes to see the other perception.

To switch the perception of a viewer, do not attempt to change it at once. Instead, find a way for that person to see the other image – through the design, work your way into strengthening that alternative to making it more dominant.

Invariance

InvariancePin It

This is a property of perception that recognizes an object regardless of their orientation on the page if they are rotated, or scaled. The human brain has the ability to recognize objects even if they change appearance. Changing the perspective doesn’t affect how people recognize familiar objects.

To Summarize

Gestalt principles should be well understood by designers. These principles are the foundation of all that is done for visual presentation. They explain how people perceive objects; how they interpret what they see. The ideas listed above should be simple enough and easy to grasp.

But knowing the definitions differs from understanding how they are applied in design. Designers should understand how these principles can influence the effectiveness of a piece. Depending on what the objectives are in coming up with the design, putting a lot of consideration on the principles of Gestalt will greatly influence the direction the project will take.

Designing requires creativity and a lot of know-how in making people experience the message you want to convey through your creation. Arming yourself with the principles of Gestalt will help you come up with designs that people can easily relate to.


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6 Comments

  1. Fantastic article - any recommendations for further reading (Amazon seems to be bereft of books on Gestalt theory for designers)?

  2. An informative, very well put together and concise article.
    I think most designers follow these principles without actually knowing it is a defined principle (I know I do). However, this is a great justification (and a good sense check) of why we do them.

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