Understanding How Gestalt Principles of Design Influence Visual Perception

gestalt principles of design

According to research by 3M Corporation, humans process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Images and design have a way of connecting with emotions and conveying deeper information than texts. In addition to this, it was discovered that the human brain analyzes images or visuals a lot easier than languages.

While this decoding process might appear like a normal process for the brain, experts have provided verifiable explanations for the ways the brain looks for patterns or logic to speed up this process. Described as the Gestalt principles, these principles are a series of theories about human perception that helps us understand how we process visual information either as a whole or broken into smaller parts.

In simple terms, Gestalt principles of design describe how our brains make sense of visual information. These principles have had a major influence on the design industry since the early 20th century. In this article, we have broken down the 11 basic Gestalt principles of design, how it works and how it applies to your work.

What is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought formed in the early 20th century that seeks to understand how the human brain perceived experiences.

This theory originated in Austria and Germany as a reaction against the principles of Elementalist and structuralist psychology atomistic orientation which broke experience into distinct and unrelated elements

The Gestalt theory emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than its parts – stating that any structure perceived as a whole has specific properties that are different from some of its elements or parts. The pioneers of Gestalt psychology are Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka.

Gestalt psychology was developed in an attempt to add a humanistic approach to what was considered a sterile approach to the scientific study of mental life. It further encompasses the qualities of form, meaning, and value that preceding psychologists had earlier thought to fall outside the boundaries of science.

What are the Gestalt Principles of Design?

5 gestalt principles of design

Gestalt principles are an essential part of visual design and laws of human perception describe how humans group similar elements, recognize patterns and simplify complex images when they perceive objects. These principles detail how the human brain creates structure by default.

Gestalt psychologist explains that the mind informs what the eye sees by perceiving a series of individual elements as a whole. More specifically, graphic designers use this principle to organize content on websites and other interfaces so it looks visually appealing and easy to understand. In other words, Gestalt principles help you connect with your audience.

In present times, marketers and graphic designers apply Gestalt principles extensively to their designs with well-placed elements that catch the eye as larger, whole images to increase customer engagement.

Why Should Graphic Designers Care About the Gestalt Principles?

Professional designers understand that psychology plays a crucial role in visual perception and effectively communicating meaningful messages. The general rule behind the Gestalt principle is that people tend to organize their experiences in a regular, orderly, and easily recognizable manner.

The belief this coordinated pattern is what influences how we can create meanings in this complex and chaotic world. These principles can help you in three key ways,

1. Incorporating Gestalt principles in design helps users to easily find and understand the information they need in the design or image.

2. Gestalt principles of design can help graphic designers to create user-friendly products and product designs that improve user experience and makes it easy to understand and interact with complex information.

3. Designers use Gestalt principles of design to decide which design elements are most effective in a specific situation and determine when and how to use background shading, color gradients, and visual hierarchy.

4. Gestalt principles also allow graphic designers to determine how to group similar and separate different elements in a design.

5. Designers can influence customers/users’ visual perception, behaviors, and decisions to take a specific action using the Gestalt principles of design.

6. Lastly, the application of Gestalt principles in design can help professional graphic designers design products that solve customers’ problems or help them fulfill their needs in a way that is beautiful, pleasing, and intuitive to use.

Concepts of Perception That Inform Gestalt Principle

Gestalt theory describes how different visual elements are grouped and separated to create a visual hierarchy in the design. However, there are some concepts of perception that influence how we understand and apply the gestalt principles of design. These concepts of perception include:

Concept #1: Emergence

gestalt principle of design
Wikimedia Commons

This concept of emergence suggests that the entire form of an object is understood first before its parts. In simple terms, it means that we see the whole shape of an object before the small details.

Concept #2: Reification

what is gestalt principles of design
Wikimedia Commons

The concept of reification suggests that the eye tends to fill in gaps and create forms even without the full explicit details. More specifically, it means that we automatically fill or see shapes or parts of an object that aren’t there. A good example of this is how our eyes fill in the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo.

Concept #3: Invariance

gestalt principles of design similarity

The concept of invariance suggests that people recognize similar forms despite variations such as color, scale, rotation, or weight. This simply means that we recognize the same shape despite distortions.

Concept #4: Multistability

gestalt principles of design examples
Edgar Rubin

The concept of Multistability suggests that when there is more than one logical interpretation or meaning for an ambiguous image or form, the eye tends to perceive or see all possible interpretations simultaneously.

Very simply, when the eye is faced with a complex image with multiple meanings, it bounces back and forth between their meanings or interpretations.

Concept #5: Figure-ground organization

gestalt theory principles of design

This concept suggests that the eye organizes forms or objects in 3D space, separating elements into background and foreground.

It simply means that we tend to separate image subjects into foreground and background even when the image does not appear three-dimensional. That is even when the image foreground is flat, the eye tends to see the surrounding elements as the background.

Concept #6: Past Experience

definition of gestalt principles in graphic design
Vecteezy

The concept of experience suggests that subjective personal or cultural experiences influence how a form is interpreted. It means that depending on what a person has gone through before in life, this can significantly affect how people instinctively perceive objects.

11 Gestalt Principles of Design To Keep in Mind For Graphic Design and Web Design

Generally, there are seven most common Gestalt principles which include figure-ground, proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, simplicity, and symmetry. However, some newer theories included uniform connectedness, parallelism, common fate, focal points, and experience as part of the Gestalt principles.

Principle #1: Figure-ground

principles of gestalt design

The principle of Figure-ground, otherwise known as multi-stability states that people are segmented into two distinct components – figure and ground.

It specifically states that the human eye identifies the foreground (focal point) of an image first and distinguishes it from the background. According to this principle, people tend to make up/form different interpretations of an image or object depending on the part that they view as a figure or the background.

The general belief is that the human brain interprets the broader area of an image as the background and the smaller areas as the figure. The figure-ground principle is often used to convey two different messages simultaneously. For example, the negative space between the letter “e” and “x” in the FedEx logo has an arrow.

gestalt design principles of typography

Principle #2: Proximity

exploring the gestalt principles of design

The principle of proximity suggests that the human brain tends to group elements that are next to each other together and separates them from elements that are further away. It refers to how close objects or elements are to each other in a design.

The proximity principle states that objects, icons, or visual elements that are close together appear to be more related than elements that are spaced far apart. By placing elements near each other in a design, you can help viewers understand the structure and the right associations you want them to see.

From the design above, image (A) can be seen as a block of dots and the second as three columns. Below is a practical example of proximity in design:

6 gestalt principles of design continuity

Principle #3: Similarity

examples of gestalt principles in design

The similarity principle suggests that the human brain tries to find differences and similarities in one image. It simply means that our brains tend to group objects that look alike.

Essentially, in graphic design, viewers tend to visually group similar objects according to size, color, or shape irrespective of their proximity. For example, from the design above, you can see that the objects are of the same shape, the different colors make them look different rather than a group. Below is a practical example of similarity in design.

6 gestalt principles of design

Principle #4: Continuity

principles of design gestalt

The principle of proximity suggests that the human eye follows the path that appears the easiest when viewing lines irrespective of whether the designer or artist drew them.

The idea behind this is that we perceive objects arranged in a continuous line or curve as more related than elements on a broken line. The human brain flows with how lines appear in a design rather than how the artist created them. Designers use this principle to guide viewers’ eyes in a specific direction. A practical example of this is Canva’s templates interface

gestalt principles in design

Principle #5: Closure

gestalt principles examples

The principle of closure states the human brain always has a way of filling in empty or negative space in design and perceiving it as a complete picture, especially when the elements are placed or located within the same closed region.

This principle enables people to see the whole first even when it is not complete. Essentially, when the brain sees a complex arrangement, it looks for a single, recognizable pattern to make sense of the design. For example, we can still see the complete object in the example below even when it is not complete or the lines are broken.

what are the gestalt principles

Principle #6: Simplicity

what are gestalt principles

The principle of simplicity is otherwise known as the symmetry principle and “prägnanz,” a German word for “good figure.” This principle suggests that the human brain views ambiguous or complex images in the simplest form possible.

Graphic designers and marketing professionals use this principle to create brand designs that are easy to understand and recognize, even if they have several shapes or concepts. In the example below, instead of seeing the old slack logo as a combination of squares and semicircles, you rather see it as a colored hashtag – because that seems to make more sense to your brain.

the gestalt principles

Principle #7: Uniform Connectedness

gestalt principles definition

The uniform connectedness principle states that objects that are more visually connected are perceived to be more related than objects with no connection. Keep in mind that the lines that connect the objects don’t need to touch the elements for the connection to be perceived.

Graphic designers use this principle to visually illustrate a process or connected ideas in the same direction as seen in the example below.

examples of gestalt principles

Principle #8: Parallelism

principles of gestalt

The parallelism principle is similar to the principle of common fate. It states that parallel objects are perceived to be more related than elements that are not parallel to each other. The principle of parallelism interprets lines as pointing or moving in some direction. Parallel lines are most seen as moving or pointing in the same direction.

For parallelism to be achieved in a design, the lines can be curves or shapes but should be in line-like order for them to appear parallel. The principle of parallelism is evident in the example below:

gestalt theory principles

Principle #9: Common Fate

5 gestalt principles

The common fate principle is also known as Synchrony states that objects that move in the same direction appear to be more related than elements that are placed or move in different directions. Keep in mind that the elements don’t need to be moving for the principle of common fate to be present.

Graphic designers mostly use this principle to depict or identify the similarities in visual elements or objects in a design – essentially, elements placed in the same direction are the same compared to when placed in different positions as seen in the example below.

top gestalt principles

Principle #10: Focal Point

gestalt principles in logos

The principle of focal point states that elements that stand out visually are more likely to capture and hold the viewer’s attention first than less visual ones.

This principle also suggests that contrasting elements tend to stand out more to viewers than similar ones. Graphic designers mostly use this principle to direct the audience’s eye to an important element to drive them to take their desired action.

In the example below, you can see the contrasting and visually appealing features of the call-to-action buttons.

Principle #11: Past Experience

gestalt principles in design life

The Principle of experience states that people’s past experiences influence their visual perception. A good example of experience in design is the use of globally known app icons in a design or certain objects that are widely known to mean the same thing.

7 gestalt principles

Like in mobile app designs, some icons are easily recognized and understood because people have used them time and time again. This principle is also synonymous with traffic light designs with red, yellow, and green colors. Virtually everyone knows what these colors mean and what they need to do when it turns on the traffic light

The Conclusion: Applying the Gestalt Principles of Design

Gestalt principles are an important set of rules or ideas that explains how we perceive visual elements or objects to form our visual perception.

Although these principles help us understand how we form our meanings of designs, they are extremely helpful for designers to understand how, why, and where to use visual elements in a design to improve its overall aesthetics, functionality, and user-friendliness. The 11 Gestalt principles explained above describe the psychology behind how people interpret and make sense of visual information.

A deep understanding of the 11 Gestalt principles identified above will enable designers to effectively use visual elements and direct viewers’ perceptions with intention and purpose rather than just relying on gut feelings.


January 23, 2023
10 min read
6 reads

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