Simplicity, Symmetry and More: Gestalt Theory And The Design Principles It Gave Birth To

Great designers understand the powerful role that psychology plays in visual perception.

What happens when someone’s eye meets your design creations? How does their mind react to the message your piece is sharing? As an amateur or professional designer, it’s important that you can answer these questions.

Understanding how a design is perceived and interpreted is a crucial asset that visual communicators must possess. We cannot possibly influence human perception with our designs if we don’t understand the driving forces behind them.

In this article, I’ll share the basic principles behind Gestalt, a psychology movement that evolved to help us understand how viewers make sense of the visual stimuli that we design for them.

What is Gestalt?

The word Gestalt is German, and literally stands for a pattern, figure, form or structure that is unified. Gestalt Psychology, a movement that took off in Berlin back in the 1920s, seeks to make sense of how our minds perceive things in whole forms, rather than their individual elements.

To understand what Gestalt Psychology attempts to explore and unpack, think of how your mind automatically perceives the face of a person you know well. This is so even though the face is no doubt made up of the same core features as any other: nose, ears, eyes, etc. What your mind does — the making sense of the features as a whole — is where Gestalt Psychology finds its focus.

How did Gestalt Psychology change the game?

Ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? Pavlov was a Russian psychologist active from the late 1890s. He (accidentally) founded the idea that we could influence behavior by using rewards (he used food as the reward and tested its impact on the behavior of his dogs). The theory was known as classical conditioning, and it still impacts the world of marketing and design today. Gestalt psychologists, unlike their colleagues, thought that processes like perception, learning and cognition weren’t that simple, and couldn’t be understood by splitting them in parts. Instead, Gestalt psychologists were interested in complex ideas like insight, holism and problem-solving; and, if you’ve been in the design world for enough time, you probably are too.

How is Gestalt related to visual perception and design?

Soon after it was introduced in psychology, Gestalt was applied to the field of visual perception by theorists like Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka. The main idea was that when we perceive the world there are many different signals coming in at the same time. To organize them, and avoid going crazy, we visualize our surroundings as unitary forms or groups. Just how we go about deciding that some objects “go together” would be the main obsession of Gestalt psychologists and designers for decades to come.

The Gestalt Principles in Design

Over the years, Gestalt psychologists have come up with lists to summarize basic principles of visual perception, which have become invaluable tools for designers. As mentioned above, these principles try to explain when and how our minds perceive different visual components as being part of the same group. The principles explained below are a combination of those proposed originally by Max Wertheimer (1923), Stephen Palmer (1999, 2002), and other contemporary Gestalt theorists.


01. Simplicity

The law of simplicity indicates that our mind perceives everything in its simplest form. The image below, for example, when studied in depth is made up of individual components that have no meaning when viewed separately, yet our mind automatically perceives them in combination to spell out the word ‘logo’.

Gestalt | Simplicity

It’s important for designers to understand the law of simplicity because when it’s combined artfully with creativity, the two can be harnessed to produce truly stunning designs. Mastering design simplicity requires you to balance two often competing considerations: the use of uncomplicated shapes and objects and the need to produce striking design effects. This example does it perfectly — using simple elements and objects in combination to produce a unique and captivating representation of a guitar.

Gestalt | Simplicidade

Essentially, simplicity is about helping the eye find “comfortable” figures used to trigger an interpretation of what we are trying to show.

02. Figure-ground

The figure-ground principle helps to explain which element in a design will immediately be perceived as the figure and which will be perceived as the ground. The “figure” is the element in focus, while the “ground” is the background behind the figure.

There are two other related principles you will need to understand before you will be able to answer this question:

  • Area: The mind often perceives the smallest object in the composition as the figure, and the larger as the ground.
  • Convexity: Convex elements are associated with figures more often than concave.

When you look at the image below, your perception of which is the figure and which is the ground alternates depending on how your mind perceives it. In one instance, it appears as if the black hand is the figure and the white is the ground, and in another it appears as if the white head is the figure and the black is the ground.

Gesltalt | Figure-Ground

Applied in design, figure-ground can make a significant difference in the way your piece communicates a message. In this ad for Melbourne’s Food & Wine Festival (2007), the wine bottles are strategically placed to create the illusion of a fork. In combining objects related to wine and food, this design conveyed the event’s message much more compellingly.

Gestalt | Figure-Ground

This poster for the film “Peter and The Wolf” exemplifies the great creative potential in using the figure-ground principle to your benefit. On one hand, you get the image of a long wolf’s body. When you shift to looking at the white in the image (previously ground) as figure, you immediately spot a man’s silhouette — which we can assume is Peter’s.

Gestalt | Figure-Ground

03. Proximity

We perceive elements as belonging to the same group if they are laid out close together. As an example, think about how proper kerning can help the eye understand which letters make up individual words. In some cases, excessive spaces between letters can cause confusion as to when one word ends and the next begins. In the example below, our mind perceives each of the proximate vertical bars to combine and form a single image of a deer.

Gestalt | Proximity

The principle of proximity is also effectively applied in Unilever’s logo. Since the small figures are laid out closely to each other, you can easily perceive the cluster as a U (in Unilever). According to their brand site, their logo was designed to include “25 icons, each of which represents something important to Unilever”.

Gestalt | Proximity

In the poster below, Coke wanted to convey happiness (one of its core brand values) by creating the shape of a smile using bottles. The fact that they are placed near each other in such a deliberate fashion helps the viewer perceive that smile.

Gestalt | Proximity

04. Similarity

We perceive elements as belonging to the same group if they look like each other. The principle of similarity can be triggered using color, size, orientation, texture and even fonts. When laying out a multi-page document, for example, creating a strong type scheme will help readers understand which chunks of text are captions, which are headlines and which are body copy.

In the image below, our mind perceives the similarly colored circles not as individual circles but as combining to form rectangles, squares and lines separate from those of another color.

Gestalt | Similarity

In the next post, we will continue to Gestalt, with more principles and examples. Until then!

By Laura Busche
Source: Canvas Design School