Updated: May 10
This article explores the Gestalt school of thought, its laws, and its capacity to expand and enrich the visual artist's thinking. It also looks at Gestalt's 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 design and the teaching practice, the inner workings of the human mind, and how it responds to surrounding visual stimuli.
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.
Gestalt is a theory that explores how the human mind perceives and organises visual stimuli and the way the brain groups and categorises visual information.
Gestalt 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 finest 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 psychology and profoundly influenced several different disciplines, such as musicology, linguistics, architecture, art,t 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 visual objects as they share 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.
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 small gap in the middle, we no longer see 1-2-3-4 as a single group, but two groups - 1-2 and 3-4 (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.
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.
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' children nursery logo - an example of how a careless implementation of spacing, colour or visual volume can catastrophically alter the intended message.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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 they appear to be flowing, their shape, size, and colour or the space that divides them, determining their ‘common fate’.
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.
The concept of closure lies within the premise that the human brain instinctively connects or closes objects that appear incomplete.
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 instinctively creates order out of disorder 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. 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 makes for 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 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. 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.
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 ‘pattern seeking’ instinct in human behaviour.
Greg Berryman from Inspired Richard’s Blog offers his own insight into the appeal of Gestalt to visual artists, visual communicators and educators. Gestalt principles “are easy to grasp and use, he says. The Gestalt has been beneficial to print designers 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