Gestalt Theory: How Our Minds React to What We See

Gestalt Theory is used by designers to create visually appealing and intuitive user interfaces. The Gestalt Principles, sometimes known as the "rules of human perception," explain how we, as humans, simplify complicated visual information by categorising objects into sets of related features. Find here, a perspective of how our minds react to what we see, and how we should organise elements in graphic and web design to cause impacts and reactions.
closure principle in gestalt theory half face of a man

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2020 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

This article examines the design concepts of the Gestalt Theory and its application to graphic and online design. The goal is to create aesthetically unified elements to transmit a significant message to the viewer.  

Understanding how your target audience perceives and interprets your work is crucial for interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. In this article, we focus on the closure principle of the gestalt Theory. 

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    Gestalt Principles of Perception

    A Perspective on the Importance of Gestalt Theory to GraphicDesign

    “The whole is other than the sum of the parts” .

    (Gestalt Psychologist, Kurt Koffka)

    The Gestalt Law or Principles of Perception, also known as the Law of Organisation, works on principles that organise our senses and perceptions. One of its main categories is closure, which states that the mind can recognise a shape or figure even if it may be incompletely presented. For example, you might perceive an entire circle even if some portion of it may be missing. This principle has been applied in numerous contexts including visual design, where it helps to create powerful and exceptionally effective graphics.

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    The Gestalt Theory

    Gestalt Theory is a key concept in visual and design studies, as it encourages designs that create relationships between elements for an improved perceptual organisation. According to the theory, viewers will perceive objects in terms of their overall connection and unity, using their perception to fill any gaps that might be present. Understanding this helps us use our visuals more judiciously to better engage our audience.

    Gestalt Principles suggest that when visual elements are grouped together, they form a unified whole that is different than the sum of its individual components. When applied in design, we see relationships between elements rather than isolated shapes. Let’s use an example of two triangles of the same colour next to each other. Our minds will recognise them as having a relationship rather than being separate items, and this demonstrates how Gestalt Principles inform our understanding of visual designs.

    There are a few rules to use these principles in their purest form in our designs:
    1. Objects will be perceived in their simplest form.
    2. People logically follow curves or lines.
    3. Our minds will tend to fill in the details that are not actually drawn there.

    How we perceive the relationships between those individual elements.

    The Closure Principle in the Gestalt Theory

    When we observe an arrangement of individual elements, our eyes perceive the elements as a group of organised, single, recognisable patterns.

    Our perceptual systems are designed to fill in gaps and see whole shapes even when the elements are incomplete. Known as ‘closure’, this effect happens when we take separate figures and our minds use cognitive processes to join them together and form a larger picture. This phenomenon is visible in many aspects of human life, from artwork to product design, where our brains naturally infer elements that were not actually there. An understanding of closure can help designers create more engaging visuals for viewers, allowing their products to stand out from the crowd.

    Source: Eduard Volianskyi

    Gestalt Psychology states in its Law of Perception that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. This means that an image or form as a whole cannot be adequately described by describing its individual components – it’s something entirely unique. it becomes a zebra!

    This figure above is a perfect example of how our minds simplify complex objects. On its own, it is just composed of lines; however, when taken as a whole and considering their position in relation to each other, we recognise those lines complete the letters A and T. Thanks to our cognitive abilities, we are able to make sense of the lines and transform them into something recognisable with clear shape and meaning.

    We see clearly that the figure is not complete, but enough of the shapes are there, and our human minds will proceed to fill in what is lacking. It is implied but not precisely designed.

    Using closure in graphic design is a great way to make images appear as an entire composition. The key is for designers to provide enough information for their viewers’ minds to fill in the gap and complete the picture. If too little is given, then it will look like individual parts and not have an overall cohesive look. Conversely, giving too much information defeats the purpose of the closure process.

    Simple is better

    Human beings perceive individual items as one distinct, recognisable pattern, which can be attributed to the use of positive and negative spaces. Through a clever visualisation process, viewers can detect optical illusions that can have a powerful impact when the process is appropriately executed. This technique helps our minds to quickly comprehend information without having to dissect multiple pieces of data separately.

    Our minds are capable of producing both fascinating and perplexing phenomena. One example of this is the optical illusion below in which one can perceive either a young woman or an old lady. Furthermore, other elements such as colour, contrast, and texture can emphasise the effect, creating a sharp contrast between the foreground and background that gives life to the composition.

    The Gestalt Principles enable us to recognise new forms and highlight the key message that our client is attempting to convey to the customer.

    A dangerous principle

    Andy Rutledge’s series on the Gestalt Principles of Perception emphasises the visual principle of closure and speaks to its captivating power. He says it is “dangerous, volatile, seductive, hypnotic, and even playful.” It is undeniable how deeply this phenomenon can impact our minds; we witness disparate pieces making up a cohesive image that does not actually exist in reality. This psychological influence demonstrates just how significant visual perception is for human cognition.

    And what we “see”, we believe, and we create our reality, our opinions, our understanding, and our conclusions. As Andy Rutledge says, we, designers, have high power, and with this power, we need to assume our professional responsibility to bring interest and discovery to the viewer

    Closure in practice

    NBC Peacock Logo Source: Smashing Magazine 2016

    The NBC peacock logo effectively utilises the concept of closure. While the versions of this logo have been simplified and improved over time, they still employ elements of negative space to represent the peacock’s full figure in the centre. The vibrant colours used in this logo are a sign of happiness, peace, and empowerment – attributes that are communicated effortlessly through its clever design.

    Another favourite example is Paul Rand’s IBM logo. The letters I, B and M are not there. What is there is a group of bright blue straight lines arranged to create the perception of a set of letters.

    Source: Gizmodo

    And look how this cheerful, tireless, unbeatable dog wagging his tail on a dog-friendly walk. Our brain sees the dog walking, but the GIF is made of a group of individual elements organised in a way to show the entire shape as a whole and communicate what is not really there (happy for the dog!)

    FedEx’s iconic logo capitalises on the use of negative white space to form an illusory arrow, indicative of speed and accuracy. Orange and purple are also used in the design – orange represents enthusiasm and energy and purple relates to creativity, royalty, and richness. The overall result is a modern yet clean logo that conveys these concepts while providing subtle depth via the use of colour.

    Created by Miles Newlyn, the Carrefour logo is both eye-catching and unique. At its core is a negative space “C” which gives it the appearance of two arrows crossing each other – a fitting symbol given that the French word carrefour translates to ‘crossroads’. Even more poignant: the colours red, white, and blue accompany the arrows, representing the colours of the French national flag. It’s truly remarkable how this logo captures so much meaning in such an appealing design. Pretty genius!

    Designing with the Law of Closure in mind

    Designers must understand that psychology plays a huge part in the visual elements of their work. Our primary purpose is to communicate an idea, so it’s important to be conscious of how viewers will interpret our message. We should always strive to make sure that viewers are seeing what we intended them to see and that we are properly conveying the message through our chosen means of communication.

    Gestalt Principles often work synergistically. Take the example of perceived letters – closure works in synergy with location and proximity to create a meaningful impression. When used correctly, these principles merge and interact, allowing users to better focus on, understand, and be influenced by the transmitted message. Proper use of closure requires only enough information to hint towards what is missing but still allows our brains to fill in the blanks and form an entire figure.

    When components are united as a cohesive group, their meanings and interpretations change. Together the individual parts form something greater than the sum of its parts, carrying a new message. The combination of positive and negative spaces creates a different perception compared to that of what each element alone conveys.

    Simplicity is the best policy

    The Gestalt Principles of grouping understand how humans typically gain meaningful perceptions of elements around them. Our brains seek to find order amid disorder-tending to make sense of a series of features as a recognisable image.

    Gestalt Principles have been used in traditional graphic design projects, such as advertisement, logo design, and branding. They are also commonly applied to user experience designs to help viewers process the interface at a glance. Through the careful positioning of elements, Gestalt concepts allow designers to create visually-impactful designs that condense company values and effectively communicate a message. The importance of this psychological approach to graphics cannot be understated; it helps designers craft effective visuals that effectively capture the attention of their audience and convey an intended meaning.

    A summary

    Gestalt laws of perception can be used to inform web and graphic design for improved user experiences. This school of psychology states that viewers tend to perceive objects or scenes in their simplest forms, and prefer minimal effort when trying to understand an element. Additionally, simplicity allows more focus on the most striking features of a design, while still imparting clarity to the message being conveyed. Striving for clean lines and clear communication is paramount to allowing users successful navigation through your website with overall pleasure in their experience.

    It’s important for designers, coders, and content specialists to keep simplicity in mind. Take out anything that isn’t necessary, but make sure that the important elements are focused on. Striving for simplicity means not having extraneous data, so make sure you’re only including what’s essential.

    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

    Albert Einstein

    This series of posts on Gestalt Theory aims to examine the advantages that Gestalt Laws offer in graphic and web design. There are other approaches to design, but Gestalt Theories provide considerable guidance in terms of determining where elements should be placed, highlighting critical components, and creating an aesthetic of equilibrium and solidity.

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    Cidinha Moss

    Cidinha Moss

    Cidinha Moss is the founder of Moss51 Art & Design, an SEO Content Writing and Web Design studio. She is a content writer and artist, with a background in languages, education, marketing, and entrepreneurship with years of writing, teaching, and providing effective text, images, and web designs to her clients. You can find her on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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