GESTALT - THE WHOLE AND ITS PARTS
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
In this blog I will be exploring the Gestalt school of thought, its laws, and how it affects the thinking behind visual communication. I will also be looking at Gestalt's impact on modern teaching practices and its role in insight and discovery learning.
As an educator and a design practitioner I see great value in the adoption of Gestalt theory in design and teaching practice. Gestalt - a fascinating field of exploration of the human mind and how it responds to surrounding visual cues.
Gestalt (pronounced ge-shtalt) is a German word that is 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.
In its simplest, Gestalt is a theory that explores how human mind perceives and organises visual stimuli, and the way the brain groups and categorises visual information.
This school of thought first came into prominence in the early 20th century. It was originated by German psychologist Max Wertheimer. Shortly after, the theory was taken up and developed further by some of the brightest minds of Gestaltism: 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 the field of psychology, but has profoundly influenced a number of different disciplines, such as musicology, linguistics, architecture, and indeed art and visual communication.
H.H. Arnson and Marla F. Prather in “A History of Modern Art” state:
“Gestalt Theory focuses on human perception, describing our ability to understand certain visual relationships as shapes or units.”
Gestalt theory rests on six fundamental principles (here numbered not in order of their importance, but for easier referencing of this article):
3. Prägnanz - Figure/Ground,
4. Common Fate,
It is a concept of grouping of visual objects as they share common space in close proximity to each other. When objects appear close to one another they tend to be perceived as a group, or a unit, not as individual or independent components.
Objects closer together will be seen as belonging together.
Take an ascending row of numbers for an 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 gap in the middle, we no longer see 1 2 3 4 as a single group, but two groups - 12 and 34 (figure 1). 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.
In web design context, a most obvious example of proximity would be a blog sidebar of lists, such as categories, links, comments, or recent posts.
Proximity in web design goes far beyond organisation of simple listed menus. Textures, shapes, opacities and colours in evenly spaced-out proximity to one another form a matching pattern, suggesting clustered information that the eye can intuitively follow and make sense of.
As pattern-seeking creatures we naturally tend to notice matching shapes, but also matching colours and visual volumes.
The process of grouping is determined not only by the proximity, but also by the similarity of objects in play.
"Kids Exchange" - an example of how a careless implementation of spacing, colour or visual volume can dramatically alter the intended message.
Paul Martin Lester, the author of ‘Visual Communication: Images with Messages’ offers an interesting take on this Gestalt 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.”
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 same space also share similar shape, size and form.
In web design it is common practice to keep navigational elements together, but also to group them into clusters, categorised and then subcategorised so to assist intuitive navigation.
3. PRÄGNANZ - FIGURE/GROUND:
Loosely translated from German into English Prägnanz means ‘good figure’.
Prägnanz is also referred to as the:
Law of Good Figure
Law of Simplicity.
Distinct objects stand out, and those that appear less clear or fuzzy may not be noticed easily, or may not be noticed at all.
The human mind seeks visual clarity and simplicity. 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.
4. 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.
Objects are related to each other by the direction in which they appear to be flowing, their shape, size, and colour or indeed the space that divides them which determine their ‘common fate’.
Following this principle, the brain will interpret figure 3 as a mesh or a net - not as a collection of short vertical and horizontal sticks stacked and joined together. In figure 4 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.
The concept of closure lies within the premise that human brain instinctively connects, or closes objects that appear incomplete.
Initial impression of figure 6 may be of three Pac-Man characters as if having a ‘conversation’. A closer look shows that it is 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. The figure 6 reveals the puzzle.
The brain instinctively creates order out of chaos by forming patterns it is familiar with.
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, but 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 makes for a good example of perceptual closure. In cultures using alphabetic script the eye will intuitively recognise the individual letters that make up this logo. However, they aren’t actually 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.
It is in human nature to be drawn to symmetry. Symmetry is not only about something being aesthetically pleasing - to us it is a fundamental evolutionary adaptation by which we naturally seek equilibrium, and the reassurance it brings 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, their direction relative to the space they occupy and their measurable visual weight. The eye has a tendency 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 for the purpose of promoting 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 ‘pattern seeking’ instinct in human behaviour.
Inspired Richard’s Blog, although not published in a traditional academic format, offers an interesting insight regarding the appeal of Gestalt to visual artists, visual communicators and educators as it suggests that its principles “are easy to grasp and use. The Gestalt has been very useful to print designers creating meaningful and well organised 2D designs such as posters, logos, magazines and billboards etc. Greg Berryman comments “Gestalt Perceptual factors build a visual frame of reference which 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 University of Texas at Arlington, states: “Another explanation is that 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, but 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 what we see is 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.
Wherever we may be gaining our creative inspiration, 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. This is essential to understanding how Gestaltism 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 argues: "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 in order to make sense of it in its entirety, or ‘wholeness’.
Gyorgy Kepes in his 1944 book ‘Language of Vision’ 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 is considerable. For learning to be effective it has to be through development of a mindset in which thought is coordinated and linked through new organisations and connections, as opposed to 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. The focus should therefore be on giving students the cognitive space in which they can discover links independently within the given topic.
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.
Following this principle students are far more likely to approach learning as a cognitive process rather than a mechanical procedure of adhering to strict ‘incontestable’ rules.
My guiding principle as a teacher should therefore be to present the new topic as clearly as possible, as simply as possible, always striving to link up the new information to the students’ existing knowledge.
Following the Principle of Figure/Ground the priority should be given to outlining the key points of a lesson before any in-depth exploration can take place. This way the key elements stand out from the background serving as students’ cognitive anchors in their process of learning. 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 explanations for our innate preference for order, symmetry and clarity.
It offers insights into how the human mind forms complex patterns through clustering of simpler objects, and how it instinctively groups and connects objects and information by their similarity or proximity to each other.
Studying Gestalt theory has enriched my understanding of ways in which the mind receives and processes visual information. It has also helped me further develop strategies and approaches in my professional practice as a visual communicator and an educator.
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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.
Graham, L, 2008. Gestalt Theory in Interactive Media Design. University of Texas at Arlington, 1 Volume 2, Issue 1, 1.
Before&After. 2008. Gestalt theory: Equilibrium. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bamagazine.com/Gestalt-theory-Equilibrium-p/d1480676.htm.
Principles of Learning. 2019. Discovery learning, Jerome Bruner. [ONLINE] Available at:
International Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications. 2015. Gestalt Theory and Arts. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.gestalttheory.net/cms/index.php?page=gt-arts.
InspiredRichard's Blog. 2015. Gestalt Theory in Interactive Media Design. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nomorebeard.wordpress.com/category/class-brief/.
Merriam Webster online dictionary. 2015. Gestalt. [ONLINE] Available at: http://beta.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gestalt%20psychology.