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GESTALT: OUR SENSE OF VISUAL BALANCE AFFECTS EVERYTHING WE SEE. AND FEEL.



This article explores the Gestalt school of thought, its laws, and its capacity to expand, enrich and broaden the visual artists' perspective. It also looks at its impact on modern teaching practices and its role in insight and discovery learning.


As a design practitioner and art educator, I see great value in adopting Gestalt theory in art & design and the teaching practice, the inner workings of the human mind, and how it responds to surrounding visual stimuli.


BACKGROUND

Gestalt (pronounced as 'ge-shtalt') is a German word loosely translated into English as ‘configuration’. Its many synonyms also imply ‘shape’, ‘essence’, ‘form’ and in particular ‘whole’. It is one of the most important and most influential modern theories on the nature of human perception.



DEFINITION

Gestalt explores how the human mind perceives and organises visual stimuli and how the brain groups and categorises visual information.



BRIEF HISTORY

Gestalt originated in the early 20th century by German psychologist Max Wertheimer. Shortly after, the theory was further developed by Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka at Frankfurt University and later by Geörgy Kepes, a Hungarian-born painter, photographer, designer, educator and art theorist.


Gestalt’s original application was in psychology, but it profoundly influenced many different disciplines, such as musicology, linguistics, architecture, art, and visual communication.





Gestalt Theory focuses on human perception, describing our ability to understand certain visual relationships as shapes or units.

H.H. Arnson and Marla F. Prather in “A History of Modern Art", 1998



GESTALT PRINCIPLES

Gestalt theory rests on six fundamental principles, here numbered not in order of their importance but for easier referencing of this article:

1. Proximity,

2. Similarity,

3. Prägnanz - Figure/Ground,

4. Common Fate,

5. Symmetry

6. Closure


1. PROXIMITY:

Objects closer together will be seen as belonging together.


It is a concept of grouping visual objects as they share a common space close to each other. When objects appear close to one another, they tend to be perceived as groups or units, not as individual or independent components.


Take an ascending row of numbers, for example, such as 1-2-3-4, all equally spaced out.



What we see is a single group of four numbers. But, if we put a small gap in the middle, we no longer see 1-2-3-4 as a single group but as two groups - 1-2 and 3-4.


The negative space in between is what determines our perception of grouping.

In figure 2, all dots are of the same size and colour, but a slight gap in the middle conditions us to perceive them as two different clusters of objects.


An obvious example of proximity would be a blog sidebar of lists in a web design context, such as categories, links, comments, or recent posts.


Proximity in web design goes far beyond the organisation of simple list menus.


Textures, shapes, opacities and colours in evenly spaced-out proximity to one another form a matching pattern, suggesting clustered information that the user can intuitively follow and make sense of.


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2. SIMILARITY:

The process of grouping is determined not only by the proximity but also by the similarity of objects in play.


As pattern-seeking creatures, we naturally tend to notice matching shapes and colours. However, careless design can dramatically alter the perception of the intended message.



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Paul Martin Lester, the author of ‘Visual Communication: Images with Messages, offers a valuable interpretation of this principle: “The law of similarity states that, given a choice by the brain, you will select the simplest and most stable form to concentrate on. This law stresses the importance of basic shapes in the form of squares, circles, and triangles.”



Objects are grouped based on their similar attributes.

Implementing this principle in a web design context, a rollover or selection of a menu item will often reveal a dropdown menu or submenu. With this visual feedback, the user would instinctively expect the same thing to happen within the cluster of neighbouring interactive links that, in addition to sharing the same space, also share a similar shape, size and form.


In web design, it is common practice to keep navigational elements together and group them into clusters, categorised and then subcategorised to assist navigation.


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3. PRÄGNANZ - FIGURE/GROUND:

Distinct objects stand out, and those that appear less clear or fuzzy may not be noticed easily or may not be noticed at all.


Loosely translated from German into English, Prägnanz means ‘good figure’.

Prägnanz is also referred to as the:

· Law of Good Figure

· Figure/Ground

· Law of Simplicity.

The human mind instinctively seeks visual clarity and meaning. Natural preference is to see clustered objects in a way that makes them appear as simple and as clear as possible or indeed as legible as possible. In the context of both print and web design, varying levels of contrast between visual elements and the background can enhance or reduce the clarity of the intended message.



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4. COMMON FATE:

Objects are related to each other by the direction they appear to be flowing, their shape, size, and colour or the space that divides them, determining their ‘common fate’.


In Gestalt, ‘Common Fate’ is described as a unified flow of clustered elements. It effectively predicts the eye’s preference for visual elements to move seamlessly in the same direction.



Figure 4 Figure 5


Following this principle, the brain will interpret figure 4 as a mesh or a net - not as a collection of short vertical and horizontal sticks stacked together. Figure 5, the eye tracks a visual pattern as it continuously follows its direction. This principle of continuity anticipates the eye’s natural preference for such shapes within the structures they form.


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5. CLOSURE:

The brain instinctively creates order out of disorder by forming patterns it is familiar with.


The concept of closure lies within the premise that the human brain instinctively connects or closes objects that appear incomplete.



Figure 6



The initial impression of figure 6 may be of three Pac-Man characters as if having a ‘conversation’. A closer look shows a single triangle placed on top of three black circles, each centred around each corner of the triangle. But the triangle is not really present - it is implied. Figure 6 reveals the puzzle.


The brain is hard-wired to solve visual puzzles as we fill in the missing information or organise it in a way that presents a whole. In such instances, our brain not only fills in the gaps. It also perceives such clusters of objects as having an additional aesthetic value as we naturally seek simple, playful yet fully discernible patterns.


Paul Rand's 1956 IBM logo is a good example of perceptual closure. In cultures using the alphabetic script, the eye will intuitively recognise the individual letters that make up this logo. However, they aren't letters - it is a cluster of blue, evenly spaced horizontal lines, ordered and arranged in such a way as to give a perception of an elegant, subtle and fully balanced typographic feature.


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6. SYMMETRY:

The natural seeking of equilibrium.


It is in human nature to be drawn to symmetry. Symmetry is not only about something being aesthetically pleasing. It is a fundamental evolutionary adaptation by which we naturally seek equilibrium and reassure it in an often unstable and challenging living environment.


In nature, a water droplet draws its mass inward as it settles in a circular shape and without tension, thus forming a stable state.


As we observe the water droplet, the eye is instinctively pulled towards the centre, at the point of the natural equilibrium of its mass.



Some of the best-known logos and trademarks draw on the principle of symmetry.



Below illustration from the 'Before and After' online design magazine and blog explores equilibrium in the page layout context. An effective designer will be acutely aware that all elements have their unique shape, direction relative to their space, and measurable visual weight. The eye tends to instinctively move towards the centre of a page or a screen. As the object shifts away from the centre, it draws the eye away and toward the object and edge, thus forming an intended visual tension.





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GESTALT THEORY AND ARTS

The Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA), a scientific association established to promote the Gestalt-theoretical perspective in research and practice, states that:


"According to Gestalt theory, the processes of perception and imagination do not comply with logical or rational rules, but rather follow and testify to an aesthetic order of sensual experience ("Gestalt Laws"). The aesthetics of sensuality are consolidated by the production of the arts, concentrating creative and perceptive processes in prototypical patterns (pulse, symmetry, polarity) and at the same time introducing ambiguity, overload and metamorphosis in the order of perception."


Gestalt was never conceived specifically to explain art & design. However, understanding its visual principles can add considerable insights into what makes effective design.


Gestalt's particular appeal to visual artists and educators is that it seeks to explain the Gestalt through pattern-seeking Gestalt's instinct in human behaviour.


Greg Berryman from Inspired Richard's Blog offers his insight into the appeal of Gestalt to visual artists, visual communicators and educators. Gestalt principles "are easy to grasp and use, he states. The Gestalt has been beneficial to print designers in creating meaningful and well-organised 2D designs such as posters, logos, magazines and billboards etc."


Gestalt's Perceptual factors build a visual frame of reference that can provide the designer with a reliable psychological basis for the spatial organisation of graphic information.



In her article Gestalt Theory in Interactive Media Design, Lisa Graham, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, states: "Another explanatGestalt'sthat gestalt refers to a structure, configuration, or layout that is unified and has specific properties that are greater than the simple sum of its individual parts. For example, a person reading a text perceives each word first as a complete word and its meaning rather than seeing individual letterforms. Each letterform is clearly an individual unit, but the greater meaning depends on the arrangement of the letterforms into a specific configuration (a word).


Another analogy is the individual frames in a movie. Each frame in a movie may be considered separately and judged on its compositional strength. Still, it is the rapid projection of multiple frames across time that forms the perception of movement and narrative continuation."



Following this analogy, when we look at a tree, we see an object in its entirety. We are indeed aware of its constituent parts: roots, trunk, bark, branches, leaves, blossoms and fruit, but ultimately what we see is the overall object with all its constituent components forming a whole.


Why is our ability to observe and focus on the Whole so important?

The observation of the 'Whole' is what constitutes human experience, an emotional connection or response to something, someone or an event. This differs from mere awareness of the system's constituent elements and the mechanics and principles by which these elements connect.


In his Big Think article, Adam Frank states: "Reduction means looking for explanations or successful predictive descriptions of a system by focusing on its smaller-scale constitutive elements. If you are interested in a human body, then reductions lead down from organs to cells to DNA to genes to biomolecules and so on. That approach has obviously been spectacularly successful ... The frontier now seems to be understanding life as a complex adaptive 'ing one in which organisation and cause occur on many levels."


It is rarely an isolated element that sparks our creativity; it is the totality of the elements, their interrelationship and the space they occupy.


The individual element and the Whole in which it resides are consequential both separately and together. Neither is more or less important. This is essential to understanding how Gestalt influences our design choices and the decisions resulting from those choices.




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GESTALT AND LEARNING

In his seminal book 'Gestalt Psychology - An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology' Wolfgang Köhler a' "Gestalt may be applied far beyond the limits of sensory experience. According to the most general functional definition of the term, the processes of learning, of recall, of striving, of emotional attitude, of thinking, acting, and so forth, may have to be included."


Learning, therefore, is not a passive process but rather is active. In the process of learning, the information is not just collected as bits of disconnected visual components - it is continuously clustered, processed, configured and reconfigured to make sense of it in its entirety, or 'wholeness'.


In his 1944 book 'Language of Vision', Gyorgy Kepes sums it up rather poignantly: "The visual language is capable of disseminating knowledge more effectively than almost any other vehicle of communication".‎


Gestalt's contribution to learning cannot be overstated. For learning to be effective, it has to be through developing a mindset in which thought is coordinated and linked through new organisations and connections instead of a perpetual repetition or memorising of raw information. Kohler called this method insight or discovery learning. He argues that the most efficient way of learning is not necessarily through trial and error or by watching someone solve a problem, but through cognition, i.e. the learner's ability to visualise the issue and solve it internally rather than externally.


An example of Gestalt's application in education, such as its Principle of Closure, is when the topic presented to students is left incomplete to some extent or loose, i.e. not fully "closed" whereby questions are pre-empted and conclusions imposed by the teacher. Therefore, the focus should be on giving students the cognitive space in which they can discover links independently within the given topic.


In his 1976 article, The Application of Gestalt Principles in Classroom Teaching, Mark Phillips states: "Initial investigations of the results of these applications have noted significant increases in teachers' self-knowledge, sense of personal control, flexibility, and attention to the "here and now." Additionally, students in confluent classrooms have shown significant increases in a number of areas, including self-esteem and self-awareness."


This method has the capacity to encourage learners to focus on gaps in their understanding of the subject rather than focus on strict and rigid instructions received during a lesson.



Students are far more likely to approach learning as a cognitive process than a mechanical procedure of adhering to strict incontestable rules.


A guiding principle of a good teacher should be to present the new topic as clearly as possible, as simply as possible, always striving to link up the new information to the student's existing knowledge.


Following the Principle of Figure/Ground, priority should be given to outlining the key points before any in-depth exploration can occur. This way, the key elements stand out from the background, serving as students' cognitive anchors in their learning process. This, for example, can be implemented by varying the tone of the teacher's voice or in the written form by highlighting the words or phrases of particular significance to the given topic.



ORDER, SYMMETRY & CLARITY

Gestalt offers rationales for our innate preference for order, symmetry and clarity. It offers insights into how the human mind naturally seeks meaning. It forms complex patterns by clustering simpler objects and how it instinctively groups and connects them by their similarity or proximity to each other.


If Visual language were a Spoken language, I'd say Gestalt would have been its syntax - the way of arranging words (visual element) and phrases (clusters of visual elements) to create a meaningful well-formed narrative.




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BIBLIOGRAPHY


BOOKS:

Arnson H.H., Prather M. F., 1998. A History of Modern Art. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.


Kepes, G, 1944. Language of Vision. 2nd ed. Chicago, Illinois: Paul Theobald.


Köhler, W, 1947. Gestalt Psychology, An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology. 3rd ed. New York: Liveright.


Lester, P.M., 2010. Visual Communication: Images with Messages. 5th ed. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing.


Wertheimer, M, 1938. Gestalt Theory. 5th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.



ARTICLES:

Graham, L, 2008. Gestalt Theory in Interactive Media Design. University of Texas at Arlington, 1 Volume 2, Issue 1, 1.


Philips M, 1976. The Application of Gestalt Principles in Classroom Teaching.






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