How Our Minds React to What We See

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.

Gestalt Principles of Perception

A Perspective on the Importance of Gestalt Theory to Graphic Design
Series 2/7

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

According to the Gestalt school of thought, our minds perceive objects in orderly and organised patterns. Gestalt Law or Law of Perception is set upon principles that manage our perception manner, based on seven main categories:  closure, similarity, proximity, symmetry, figure-ground, continuation, and synchronicity. We have talked about them in a previous post “Basic Design Principles to Create Incredible Graphics”. Today we will examine closure, the principle that holds that our minds can perceive what is not there, or, in other words, that our minds perceive forms and figures in their whole appearance even if some parts of it are missing, either hidden or totally absent.

The Gestalt Theory

The Gestalt Theory works to create relationships between elements of information that can be used to improve the manner we design our images to be more precise and more helpful to the viewers. The Gestalt law of perceptual organisation teaches that viewers perceive objects in the environment as being part of a whole (“unified whole”) and, our minds even fill the gaps to create cohesive shapes.

That means that if we see, for example, two triangles of the same colour close to each other, we will see them as having a relationship instead of two distinct triangles.   The fundamental dogma is that “the whole is different than the sum of the individual parts”. Our minds see visual elements into groups, and when the Gestalt Principles are applied, we perceive the relationships between them in the design.

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.

The Great Advantage of This Study Is How We Perceive the Relationships Between Those Individual Elements.

These six principles are the main ones for design and there are several names attributed to them depending on which school is used. Please refer to my previous post where I list the different names.

This article will cover one of them, closure, and the others will follow in other articles in this series.


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

When elements are close, our mind tends to add features to complete the closure. When the shapes are not complete, we automatically add the missing elements to complete the image. Even when the image is not yet entire if there is enough before our eyes our minds will complete and recognise the shape. The closure occurs when the viewers’ eyes complete the shape. This is how our human minds naturally perceive visual elements, how our mind interprets the view. The information is not there, but there is enough to fill in the blanks, and we see the shape.

zebra closure principle in Gestalt Theory
Source: Eduard Volianskyi

That demonstrates what Gestalt Phycology proposes with its Law of Perception that “the whole is other (different) than the sum of the (individual) parts”, meaning, the complete form we see is not the same or more or less than the separate parts; it is something completely different than the sum of the parts.

a circle closure principle  in Gestalt Theory
Source: Smashing Magazine 2016

This figure is perceived as a circle. We recognise it as a circle, nevertheless actually, it is a group of curved lines, yet considering the location and proximity of those curved lines, it forms a circle. Our mind adds the missing parts. We would never think it is a group of lines; we see it as a whole, like a circle. It is simpler to see a circle (that has shape and meaning) than to see a group of lines (which would require our minds to work hard to identify their meaning and sense).

We see clearly that the object 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.

panda bear mind reacts to what you see
Source: Smashin Magazine 2016
hang holding a lamp mind reacts to what you see
Source: nikkiarnell,net

Therefore, the key to using closure to enhance our graphic design is to provide enough information to allow our eyes to see the rest. With too little information, the pieces will look like separated parts and not form a whole. Too much and there will be no need for the closure process to occur.

Simple Is Better

Our mind recognises the elements as a single recognisable pattern instead of multiple groups of individual items. It makes the work more accessible to our eyes and mind. This visualisation process occurs using positive and negative space, where the viewers’ eyes are directed to create optical illusions with quite a dramatic impact when well executed.

old lady, young lady mind reacts to what you see

Another traditional optical illusion shows a young lady, or you might see an old woman.  It is interesting to see how our minds play tricks on us.

To enhance the impact of the effect, other patterns can be added, such as contrast, creating a sharp distinction between the foreground and background, or colour, to add life to the composition and reinforce the relationships among the individual parts.

These principles make us notice new forms and call attention to the central message our client is transmitting to the customer.

A Dangerous Principle

Andy Rutledge in his excellent series on the Gestalt Principles of Perception, says that the visual principle of closure is “dangerous, volatile, seductive, hypnotic, and even playful”. Wow! That is why it is so effective in its impact on human minds. We look at odd pieces of a picture, and our minds show us an image that does not actually exist; it impacts our psyche to create a visual image and induces us to believe in it. That is a lot of power!

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 logos  closure principle in Gestalt Theory
NBC Peacock Logo Source: Smashing Magazine 2016

One example of closure is the NBC peacock logo. It reduces elements and uses negative space; the current logo communicates the same image but with more sophistication.  The principle of closure is used to transmit the perception of the peacock’s body in the negative space in the middle. The use of the dominant bright colours transmits a message of confidence, radiance, peacefulness, and happiness spreading from the pure white body produced by the negative space.

IBM logo closure principle in Gesttal theory
IBM Logo Source:

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.

dog walking mind reacts to what you see
dalmation walking Source: Gizmodo

And look how cheerful this dog is 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.

FedEx logo  closure principle in Gestalt Theory
FedEx Logo Source: Smashing Magazine 2016

Negative white space forms the forward-moving arrow of FedEx’s logo producing an illusory result that makes us see the company’s message as a symbol of speed and accuracy, especially with the use of orange, symbolising enthusiasm and energy, and bright purple associated with creativity, royalty, and richness, all in a simple and clean logo.

carrefour logo Gestalt Theory

Designed by Miles Newlyn, the Carrefour logo has a feature that once you see it, it will be impossible not to see it anymore. The negative space letter ”c” is central to the logo, but in reality, this logo is made of two arrows, to the right and to the left, as the French word “carrefour” means “crossroads”, or a supermarket where you have the choice of multiple choices of products. And with the colours of the French flag added to it. Pretty genius!

Designing with the Law of Closure in Mind

We, designers, need to understand the vital part that psychology plays in the visual perceptions we create. When people meet our designs, are they seeing what we wanted them to see? Are we valid with the means of communication we choose? After all, the main goal of graphic design is to communicate an idea. It is an art form with a specific purpose. We must exercise caution about how the viewers’ minds react to the message we are endeavouring to transmit. 

Several Gestalt Principles work together most of the time. We saw before in the example of the perceived circle, where closure needs the location and proximity principles to produce the complete impact. The principles mingle and interrelate to make people pay attention longer and influence their attitudes towards what is being transmitted. To use closure effectively, we need to reduce the elements to the fewest possible fragments required to complete a figure but still with enough information for our brains to fill in the missing parts and create a whole.

kissing mind reacts to what you see
Source: Andrea Baratella from Pixabay

The whole is different from the sum of the individual parts. The individually separated fractions have one meaning, but when they have united in a coherent group, their meaning changes and they become different from what they were before and transmit a whole new exciting message. Positive and negative spaces work together in combination to form a new perception.

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.

Early graphic designers began applying those principles in advertising, logos, branding and lately in UX designs, notably in interfaces, when users need to understand what they see and find what they are looking for at a glance.  Gestalt Principles let us condense company values within iconic designs and refine and perfect their application to our designs with attention to colours and other cultural considerations. The contribution of Gestalt psychologists is remarkable to graphic design as it helps us craft our images with well-placed elements to catch the eyes of the viewer so that they will instantly make connections with the figure and recognise its meaning.

Gestalt laws create an optical illusion to improve your UX when you are designing a website or creating a graphic design. Simplicity is fundamental to the Gestalt psychology school, which holds that all objects and scenes can be observed in their simplest forms to be understood and recognised. Our minds refuse to work harder to understand an element; it perceives a component in the most accessible way possible. In addition, simplicity highlights the significance of striking features. And this is an advantage when we are designing a website as we can keep things simple and focus on what is really necessary. Be clean and straightforward to communicate the message and guide the user to what they want to find and, hopefully, give them pleasure in the experience.

It is essential to say that simplicity is not the same as plainness. Simplicity is to remove all unnecessary elements from the design, content, and code. No extraneous information but focus on what matters.

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

Albert Einstein

We will be discussing the advantages that Gestalt Laws bring to our work in graphic and web design in the next few posts in this series. Of course, there are other laws that we should use, but Gestalt gives good advice, especially in identifying where each element belongs, how to point attention to critical elements and how to generate the impression of balance and stability in the design we produce. 


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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 web builder with a background in languages, education, 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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