Principles of the Gestalt Theory to Create Incredible Graphics

Gestalt Theory is the theory of visual perception and the way in which our brain organizes reality. "Gestalt" is the German word for form or shape. The theory gives light on the role of cognition in how viewers interpret a design. When applied to UX designs, it improves how end users comprehend and navigate a website.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 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 to create aesthetically unified elements. Understanding how your target audience perceives and interprets your work is crucial for both interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. Learn how the Gestalt Principles can help you effectively transmit your message to your target audience.

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    Gestalt Principles of Perception

    A Perspective on the Importance of Gestalt Theory to Graphic Design

    "THE HOLE IS OTHER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS"
    (Gestalt Psychologist, Kurt Koffka)

    When designing visuals, it’s crucial to keep the fundamentals in mind. These guidelines concern both the structure of the image and the intended viewers, who are unique individuals with individual perceptions and ideas.

    For instance, when someone sees your logo for the first time, their eyes and brain will pick out and interpret particular details, which will then affect their attitude and actions.

    woman looking to the right
    “For example, if you have a face on the right side of the slide looking off to the right, the viewers will have a tendency to do the same—and thus be looking off-screen, rather than where you want them to focus.” 
    ― Stephen M. Kosslyn

    Therefore, there are technical principles a designer must follow, and psychological elements must be present to attract and please the selected, specific target audience the visual graphic created for. 

    This is supported by findings from various scientific disciplines investigating the connection between the functioning of the brain’s memory, environment, and visual systems and the actions of the intended audience.

    Communicaton is our goal

    The American Psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn, in his excellent book “Elements of Graph Design”brings to our attention that our mind is not a camera. Simple but essential fact.

    We interpret and understand visual elements by grouping them according to our own principles of perceptual organisation.

    What this means is that we mentally break down the objects in front of us into smaller pieces, using our own set of rules for how to perceive and categorise things.

    Professor Kosslyn explains that our visual system does not function like a camera that records and registers what they are pointed at in a veridical manner. Our mind dynamically organises and interprets what we see. The interpretation is a consequence of the ways our brains work.

    This phenomenon is crucial to graphic designers who want to communicate with their customers. Our customers are not passive receptors; their visual system uses their “input channels” (Kosslyn, 1994) to register distinct levels of details.

    Make your graphic design meaningful, not pervasive

    If we want to draw attention to both the broad strokes and the minute details of a logo, for example, we run the risk of overwhelming the viewer with too much information at once. This will force the observer to use more effort in order to decipher the logo’s meaning. Can we expect our logo to convey anything meaningful if no one can figure out what it means?

    If you ignore the main principles of perception and memory, your graphic design will not communicate properly to the viewer. If you respect them, your symbols, images, and text will form a visual representation and share the ideas and messages you want to transmit at a glance.

    In UX designs, Gestalt Principles improve speed, functionality, and clarity; a good web design company will utilise this principle to create the best designs that complete visitors to take action. It will make a big difference to what you present. The way you design will be interacting and engage with the viewer to construct a meaningful perception and improve their user experience. 

    Professional graphic designers should not be seduced to low-cost do-it-yourself businesses for their sources. They should design elements to communicate effectively, consider the principles of human vision, cognition, and behaviour, develop their eyes for what works effectively, and avoid what detracts from their message.

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    Visual perceptions: Gestalt Design Principles

    Visuals and graphic principles help graphic designers communicate. Stephen Bradley’s Smashing Magazine piece on Gestalt psychology and “Law of Simplicity” (Prägnanz) proponents is a remarkable reading for UX designers. 

    Gestalt psychologists grouped the study of visual perception into distinct principles, or laws, to explain how our mind reacts to external stimuli. We perceive the whole before seeing the individual parts of an object.  Our thoughts fill in the blanks to form an overall impression of an object before we even see its component pieces.

    The notion greatly affects the primary goal of web and graphic design, which is to develop visual forms that communicate ideas and messages to the intended audience.

    Why Gestalt Principles are essential

    Gestalt signifies a “unified pattern or configuration” and emphasises that humans perceive entire patterns or configurations before they perceive individual fragments.

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

    Visual perception and the information conveyed by an object are at the heart of Gestalt concepts. As the human mind processes visual information in a holistic manner, you’ll notice that certain thoughts traverse and link to multiple principles.

    When we design images for the target audience, we must select the most important part of the message we want to communicate. Make it as clear as possible and focus on the essentials of the message without distracting the viewer with irrelevant distractions.

    Our species has evolved to value clarity, simplicity, and structure. This is known as the Law of Prägnanz or the Principle of Least Effort – the fundamental principle of Gestalt Theory.  The graphic below compares two variations of the same shape. The left one is blue and the right one illustrates the three figures that make up the shape. Instead of viewing the complicated and ambiguous figure of the full forms in blue, you can see the three separate figures on the right as a simpler shape. 

    The Gestalt Principles can assist you to understand how users will interact with your work as an aspiring UX designer or UI expert. Let’s look at each principle. The Gestalt Principles are:

    Gestalt Principle of Proximity

    Proximity is a strong principle that uses space to organise objects by their connection to other objects or, in other words, how the objects form a group. If we perceive a variety of objects near each other, they are seen as being together.  

    The lines connect two pairs of elements leading us to perceive that those visually connected elements relate to each other more than the other elements in the design.

    Gestalt Principle of Similarity

    If we group objects together with shared characteristics of shapes, colour, size or other effects, our mind will perceive those objects as having a similar function.

    Use it as an SEO strategy to improve UX. This principle can be especially useful as it helps us understand information faster and more efficiently in Site Navigation, where we group links and categories simultaneously to make navigation easier for the visitor.

    Things that are seen together bring understanding to a procedure.

    Shape – Things that are seen as similar in shape are perceived as being together.

    Size – Things that are seen as similar in size are perceived as being together.

    Colour – Things that are seen as similar in colour are perceived as being together.

    Gestalt Principle of Closure

    Closure (also known as Reification, when our minds fill in the blanks) makes advantage of the void left by the absence of one or more of the constituent parts. Making use of our innate propensity for pattern recognition by filling in missing pieces of the shape using mental data. Because of this, our lives are made easier. Instead of a jumble of shapes, there is just one figure.

    On the left, the closure principle causes us to see the picture of four violet Pac-Man figures instead of a white diamond. On the right, the Closure reveals the WWF panda’s whole form by interconnecting the shapes and space.

    A beautiful example of closure is Paul Rand’s IBM logo. You read the letter I, B and M clearly, but it appears that the figure has another element that completes the design. The letters that you see, are not actual letters, but blue horizontal lines arranged in a way to create the perception of letters. 

    Gestalt Principle of Symmetry

    Our brain interprets the world as being symmetrical and anchored at a central point. It can be symmetrical when the weights of the elements are distributed evenly on either side of the figure or asymmetrical when the flow of the design is in contrast (dark areas balanced by light areas, for instance).

    With this rule in mind, we can make sure that all of the pieces fit together nicely and present a professional look. It brings simplicity cleaning the design of chaotic random elements.

    simmetry principle gestalt theory graphic
    Symmetry: a sense of order and balance - Source: Creative Blog, 2018

    Gestalt Principle of Continuity

    Line or Linearity Concept

    Linear or curved groupings of objects are more easily understood to have some sort of relationship than other types of groupings. Things that appear to be running in a straight line or along a path are taken to be moving together.

    Figure or Ground Figure Perception

    Both our eyes and our brains are wired to pick out foreground details when seeing an object. We tend to see objects and separate them from the background. The most classical example is the candlestick illustration or two faces staring at each other. Our vision works best when there are two distinct planes of focus: the foreground figure and the background.

    The more skilfully we manage the stability of the link between both levels, the more effectively we can guide the target audience to focus on what we want them to focus on.

    Synchronicity or the Power of Common Destiny

    If elements are seen as moving in the same direction, they are perceived as being more connected than elements that are static or not moving or changing. They don’t actually have to be going anywhere in particular, but because of the way they’re linked, it appears that they are.

    What to gain from studying Gestalt Principles

    Graphic and web designers would do well to study these guidelines developed by Gestalt psychologists and incorporate them into their work whenever possible; they improve readers’ ability to make sense of visual information and aid in the recognition of patterns. 

    The investigation of different ways of thinking (cognitive modes) is fascinating. And it’s useful for our design work. The study of Gestalt concepts is an essential first step for aspiring designers and a worthwhile refresher for seasoned professionals.

    The influence of Gestalt theory on graphic and digital design is something that we should all keep learning more about. Test the theories out on your own design and look at examples to see how you can use them to create harmony in your composition and a clear hierarchy of elements.

    Feel free to browse the related articles on the Gestalt Principles of Perception listed below and post your thoughts. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained.

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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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