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.
In this video, designer and educator Mia Cinelli explains the importance of Gestalt principles in visual design and introduces a few principles, including figure/ground relationships, similarity, proximity and continuity.
Gestalt Principles – a Background
"Gestalt" is German for "unified whole". German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler created the Gestalt Principles in the 1920s.
They wanted to understand how people make sense of the confusing things they see and hear. They identified a set of laws that 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.
Graphic designers quickly embraced Gestalt Principles, using them to create eye-catching designs with well-placed elements.
The whole is other than the sum of the parts.
Gestaltism's philosophy is not the same as Aristotle's saying, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." In Gestaltism, the whole is different and may even be completely unrelated to its parts.
Gestalt Principles are an essential part of visual design. There are more than ten overlapping principles. Here's a look at some of the more common ones.
The principle of emergence is central to Gestalt thinking. We perceive the world without thinking too much about understanding every small thing around us. This ability to quickly make sense of our environment is essential for survival. Imagine if we spent hours analyzing our world to understand what was going on; wild animals would have devoured our ancestors in no time!
2. Closure (Reification)
We prefer complete shapes, so we automatically fill the gaps between elements to perceive a complete image. That's how we can see the whole first. You can use closure creatively to gain users' trust and admiration. Users will appreciate it when they see pleasing "wholes" made from cleverly placed elements like lines, dots, or shapes.
3. Common Region
We perceive elements that are in the same closed region as one group. To apply this principle to your interfaces, group related objects together in a closed area to show they are separate from other groups.
4. Continuity or Continuation
The continuity principle of Gestalt states that we group elements that seem to follow a continuous path in a particular direction. The human eye follows the paths, lines, and curves of a design and prefers to see a continuous flow of visual elements rather than separated objects. The human eye continues to follow the path even if an obstacle hides it or its flow is "broken" by interlinking or bisecting visual elements.
Mia Cinelli explains how the principle of continuity applies to typography and highlights a widespread mistake designers make.
We group closer-together elements, separating them from those farther apart. When you group elements in your design, users will see it as one distinct entity on the screen.
In this video, Michal Malewicz, designer and co-founder of HYPE4.com, explains how we can use proximity to define hierarchies in our user interfaces.
When images are ambiguous and present two or more meaningful interpretations, we experience the sensation of switching between them. We cannot see the multiple versions simultaneously. This switching sensation is called multistability.
We dislike uncertainty, so we look for solid, stable items. Unless an image is ambiguous—like Rubin's Vase above—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 color theory, you'll help guide users in their tasks and lessen their cognitive load.
Figure/ground and multistability are sometimes confused to be the same. However, there is a slight difference. In most cases, background and foreground are stable, but in some cases, such as the optical illusion of Rubin's vase, it can contribute to multistability.
The Gestalt principle of invariance explains how we perceive basic shapes as identical despite various transformations. These transformations include rotation, movement, size alteration, stretching, different lighting conditions, and variations in parts. This principle is crucial for recognizing faces, for example. Thanks to invariance, we can recognize our friends and family members from afar or different angles or even when they make funny faces.
Pragnanz describes the human tendency to simplify complexity. Our environment constantly bombards our senses with stimuli, while we have limited attention and processing capacity to handle all the complexity. Pragnanz helps us see order and regularity in a world of visual competition.
When items, objects or elements share superficial characteristics, we perceive them as grouped. We can see the similarity principle in branding and design system guidelines.
11. Symmetry and Order
Humans tend to see visual elements as grouped when they are arranged symmetrically. The natural world is filled with symmetry (or near symmetry), and our brains tend to favor symmetrical forms. Grid systems that evenly divide the space help designers implement symmetry and order in user interfaces.
12. Common Fate
This principle refers to the human tendency to perceive visual elements moving in the same direction or in unison as grouped. Visuals need not be moving to convey motion. Cues such as arrows and the rotation angle can indicate the direction in which the elements are perceived to move.
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. Below are examples of the Gestalt principles from the IxDF landing page.
In your designs, you should never confuse or delay users. Instead, guide them to their options so they can identify with organizations/brands rapidly.
Learn More about the Gestalt Principles
Learn all the principles of Gestalt and how designers employ Gestalt psychology by enrolling in our online course Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide.
UX Misfit's UI Design in Practice: Gestalt Principles provides several examples of how Gestalt principles are used in web and UI design.
For more on building relationships via Gestalt Principles, see Smashing Magazine's article, Improve Your Designs With The Principles Of Closure And Figure-Ground.
See UsabilityHub's Gestalt design principles for more examples.
See Usertesting.com's blog, 7 Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception: Psychology for UX, for tips and examples.
Content strategist Jerry Cao's piece on Gestalt Principles for Designers offers many helpful insights.
Questions related to the Gestalt Principles
How many Gestalt principles are there?
There are six commonly recognized Gestalt principles of perception: similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, and symmetry and order (also known as prägnanz). These principles describe the way our brain organizes visual information by grouping similar elements, recognizing patterns and simplifying complex images. While these are the most widely acknowledged principles, some researchers and designers may refer to additional principles. The precise figure may differ a little based on the origin of the information.
What is Gestalt psychology?
Gestalt psychology focuses on how people perceive objects, shapes, and forms as whole entities rather than separate parts. It proposes that the mind organizes sensory inputs into meaningful wholes, following principles like similarity, proximity, and closure. These principles are fundamental in web design and visual communication. To delve deeper into Gestalt psychology and its application in web design, enroll in the course 'Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide'.
What is Gestaltism?
Gestaltism, also known as Gestalt psychology, proposes that the brain works holistically, parallelly, and analogously with self-organization tendencies. It emphasizes that the human mind groups similar elements, recognizes patterns and simplifies complex images when we perceive objects. Fundamental principles of Gestaltism include similarity, proximity, closure, continuity, figure-ground, and symmetry & order, which play a crucial role in visual perception and interpretation.
How to pronounce Gestalt?
Gestalt is pronounced as guh-shtahlt. The "g" is pronounced like the "g" in "get," the "e" is pronounced like the "u" in "but," the "s" is sharp, the "t" is pronounced like "t" in "bet," and the "a" is pronounced like the "ah" in "father." The emphasis is on the first syllable: GUH-shtahlt.
What is Gestalt language processing?
Gestalt language processing is a cognitive approach to understanding how our brain organizes and interprets language. It is based on Gestalt psychology, which underlines that the human mind perceives things as a whole rather than a collection of parts. According to Gestalt language processing, our brain organizes words and sentences into meaningful whole units rather than looking at them as individual words, which helps us understand and interpret the information we receive quickly. This process is crucial for effective communication and is fundamental to human cognition.
What is Gestalt language?
Gestalt language refers to the application of Gestalt principles to language and communication. It is a way of understanding how our minds organize and interpret language as a whole rather than as a series of isolated parts. This approach helps in comprehending and interpreting language quickly and effectively, which is essential for successful communication.
Who is the founder of Gestalt psychology?
Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka established Gestalt psychology in the early 20th century. Although many credit Wertheimer as the principal founder due to his seminal work on motion perception and the 'phi phenomenon,' Köhler and Koffka also made significant contributions, making them co-founders of the movement.
Where to learn the Gestalt Principles?
To learn about Gestalt Principles, you can enroll in the online course Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide offered by the Interaction Design Foundation. This comprehensive course will provide you with a deep understanding of Gestalt psychology principles and how to apply them in web design. By the end of the course, you'll be equipped to create more intuitive and user-friendly designs. Sign up for the course here: Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide.
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.
All open-source articles on the Gestalt Principles
The Law of Similarity - Gestalt Principles (Part 1)
- 1.1k shares
- 1 year ago
The Key Elements & Principles of Visual Design
- 1.1k shares
- 1 year ago
Laws of Proximity, Uniform Connectedness, and Continuation – Gestalt Principles (Part 2)
- 1.1k shares
- 3 years ago
The Laws of Figure/Ground, Prägnanz, Closure, and Common Fate - Gestalt Principles (Part 3)
- 1k shares
- 3 years ago
Open Access - Link to us!
We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.
If you want this to change, , link to us, or join us to help democratize design knowledge!