The Gestalt Principles
What are the Gestalt Principles?
Gestalt Principles are principles/laws of human perception that describe how humans group similar elements, recognize patterns and simplify complex images when we perceive objects. Designers use the principles to organize content on websites and other interfaces so it is aesthetically pleasing and easy to understand.
Gestalt Principles – a Background
“Gestalt” is German for “unified whole”. The first Gestalt Principles were devised in the 1920s by German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler—who aimed to understand how humans typically gain meaningful perceptions from the chaotic stimuli around them. They identified a set of laws which address the natural compulsion to find order in disorder. According to this, the mind “informs” what the eye sees by perceiving a series of individual elements as a whole. Professionals in the then-growing industry of graphic design quickly adopted these principles, and designers have since used Gestalt Principles extensively to craft designs with well-placed elements that catch the eye as larger, whole images.
The whole is other than the sum of the parts.
- Kurt Koffka
Gestalt Principles are principles / laws of human perception that describe how humans group similar
Gestalt Principles are an essential part of visual design. There are more than ten overlapping principles; four of the most widely recognized ones are:
Closure (Reification): We prefer complete shapes, so we automatically fill in gaps between elements to perceive a complete image. That’s how we can see the whole first. You can apply closure in all sorts of imaginative ways to win users’ admiration and trust when they recognize pleasing “wholes” in cleverly placed elements, be they lines, dots or shapes (e.g., segments of a picture). Iconic logos such as IBM’s and the World Wildlife Fund’s are examples of applied closure—IBM’s comprising blue horizontal lines arranged in three stacks; the WWF’s consisting of a cluster of black shapes set against a white background to reveal the familiar form of a panda. .
Common Region: We group elements that are in the same closed region. You include related objects in the same closed area to show they stand apart from other groups. You can see this principle applied in Facebook, for example, where likes, comments and other interactions appear within the boundaries of one post and so stand apart from others.
Figure/Ground (Multi-stability): We dislike uncertainty, so we look for solid, stable items. Unless an image is ambiguous—like Rubin’s Vase, below—we see its foreground first. You can apply figure/ground in many ways, but chiefly to contrast elements: for example, light text (i.e., figure) from a dark background (i.e., ground). When you use figure/ground well, alongside other considerations such as a careful application of color theory, you’ll help guide users in their tasks and lessen their cognitive load.
Proximity (Emergence): We group closer-together elements, separating them from those farther apart. So, when you cluster individual elements into one area or group on your design, users will recognize it as one entity standing distinct from anything else on-screen. An example of proximity in design is the Girl Scouts logo, with its three faces clustered in profile (two green, one white).
You can also apply other Gestalt Principles in design work—e.g., continuation, unified connectedness—whichever work/s best to access your users and help them achieve their (and your brand’s) desired goals.
Gestalt Principles are in the Mind, Not the Eye
The Gestalt Principles are vital in user experience (UX) design. When you design interfaces, users must be able to understand what they see—and find what they want—at a glance. The principles of proximity and common region are a good example, as our landing page shows below. Colors and graphics divide the page into separate regions. Without this, users would struggle to make associations between unrelated clustered-together items—and leave. In your designs, you should never confuse or delay users. Instead, guide them to their options and so they can identify with organizations/brands rapidly.
Learn More about the Gestalt Principles
Learn more about how designers employ Gestalt psychology, by enrolling in our online course: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/gestalt-psychology-and-web-design-the-ultimate-guide
For more on building relationships via Gestalt Principles, see Smashing Magazine’s article: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/05/improve-your-designs-with-the-principles-of-closure-and-figure-ground-part-2/
Usertesting.com’s blog features many tips and examples: https://www.usertesting.com/blog/2016/02/24/gestalt-principles/
Content strategist Jerry Cao’s piece on Gestalt Principles for Designers offers many helpful insights: http://blog.teamtreehouse.com/gestalt-principles-designers-applying-visual-psychology-modern-day-design
Literature on the Gestalt Principles
Here’s the entire UX literature on the Gestalt Principles by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about the Gestalt Principles
Take a deep dive into Gestalt Principles with our course Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide .
One of the key ingredients to a successful product is the creation of effective, efficient and visually pleasing displays. In order to produce such high-quality displays, whether they are graphical (e.g., websites) or tangible (e.g., remote controls), an understanding of human vision is required, along with the knowledge of visual perception. By observing, researching, and identifying examples of our perceptual abilities, we can design products according to these unifying qualities. In order to spread such skills within the world of interaction design, we have developed “Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide.”
Gestalt psychology is a theory of mind which has been applied to a number of different aspects of human thought, action, and perception. In particular, Gestalt theorists and researchers attempt to understand visual perception in terms of the way in which underlying processes are organized and how they help us make sense of the world. The organization of these cognitive processes is important to our understanding of how we interpret the constant stream of visual information entering our eyes and how it becomes a cohesive, meaningful and usable representation of the world. Over the last twenty years, the work of Gestalt psychologists has been adopted by interaction designers and other professionals involved in the development of products for human users.
Within this course, we have compiled and consolidated some of the best resources currently available on the subject of Gestalt psychology and visual perception. To help you appreciate how you can apply Gestalt psychology to web design, we have provided many different examples from existing designs. These draw attention to the exact qualities, quirks, and features of visual perception. Moreover, they discuss how these have been accommodated and, on a number of occasions, exploited so as to support either the user's intentions or those of the designer or client.
The application of Gestalt thinking to design provides us with insights and new ways of approaching problems and challenges. By cementing in our own minds the many ways we organize visual information, we can improve our designs for all users.
The Law of Similarity - Gestalt Principles (Part 1)
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The Key Elements & Principles of Visual Design
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Laws of Proximity, Uniform Connectedness, and Continuation – Gestalt Principles (Part 2)
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The Laws of Figure/Ground, Prägnanz, Closure, and Common Fate - Gestalt Principles (Part 3)
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