The Law of Figure-Ground

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What is the Law of Figure-Ground?

The law of figure-ground is a visual perception law or Gestalt principle. It describes how humans perceive an image as they separate it into the figure—foreground—and ground—background. Designers use it to create a clear visual hierarchy between the front “figure” and surrounding “ground,” and so guide users’ attention to important design elements.  
 

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Why is the Law of Figure-Ground Important?

The Gestalt law or principle of figure-ground (sometimes called “figure/ground” or “figure and ground”) is an essential principle of cognitive psychology. It’s valuable for designers who work in user experience (UX)—and particularly user interface (UI) design. This law is also called figure/ground—or figure and ground—and it’s a long-used staple in graphic design. When designers have a clear division between the foreground and background, it helps them to offer users the guidance they need to help them in performing tasks and get to and through the goals they want to on a website or app.  

The Gestalt principles of perception describe how the human eye finds and the brain organizes visual elements into groups to find patterns. What is important to bear in mind is that this happens naturally for viewers—and users. Humans do it with very little information to cue from the individual elements we encounter. People see what they see because their minds automatically strive to find order and meaning in the world around them. For example, the Rubin vase—in the picture below—shows the figure-ground principle at work. A viewer sees either a black vase or two white faces looking at one another. They interpret one or the other—but not both images at the same time. 

Image of the Rubin vase.

The phenomenon of perspective: the famous Rubin vase compels viewers to see one thing or another.

© Nicholas Amendolare, Fair Use

To be more precise, the principles of Gestalt psychology—also called Gestalt laws—are psychological principles that describe how human minds perceive visual elements their eyes show them. They suggest how human brains perceive objects and visual information—and that includes lines or curves and focal points—in certain ways. These principles include how an image is more than the sum of its parts—and how human minds typically group items into meaningful patterns. Because of this simple fact—which some may call a universal truth—the Gestalt laws are vital parts of a designer’s toolkit in visual design. That’s especially the case when it comes to optimizing user interfaces in a way to welcome users and assure them that, indeed, they can enjoy a good experience. 

The roots of Gestalt theory are well-founded; they go back to Germany in the 1920s. The Gestalt school of psychology consisted of psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler. The Gestalt psychologists’ approach involved the development of some theories. These theories include: the law of Prägnanz—or good figure—common region, closed region, principle of similarity, principle of uniform connectedness, principle of proximity, principle of continuity, principle of closure, and figure-ground. 

The figure is the object that appears to be in the front. Meanwhile, the ground is the area that surrounds the figure. This remarkably simple phenomenon explains why the figure-ground relationship is one of the fundamental concepts in visual perception. Designers use it to create meaningful—and often very striking—compositions in art and design. The foreground and background are tools that create contrast and balance and deliver a great sense of organization. This fact makes it easier for users to understand the content—and navigate the interface. 

Image of the Gestalt principles arranged around the word 'Gestalt'.

Figure-ground is a fundamental Gestalt principle, among others.

© Cameron Chapman, Fair use

How to Apply the Figure-Ground Principle in UX Design 

Designers can apply the figure-ground principle—or law—in a variety of ways and with it make interfaces that are both visually appealing and functional. More specifically, designers can use the law of figure-ground in their designs to: 

  • Create contrast: When designers use contrasting colors, shapes and textures, they can make a clear distinction between the figure and the ground. This makes it much easier for users to spot the most important elements on the screen and navigate the interface. 

Screenshot of eBay.com homepage.

The contrast of eBay’s blue Search button on the white background is an example of figure-ground at work.

© eBay, Fair use

  • Balance elements: Use the figure-ground principle to balance the elements on the screen. Here, it’s especially important to make sure that the foreground and the background are visually appealing and in a state of harmony. This creates a sense of stability and order, something that makes the interface more user-friendly. 

    Screenshot of Seriously Unsweetened design.

    Seriously Unsweetened showcases tasteful, and tasty, balance using figure-ground.

    © Smashing Magazine, Fair use

  • Organize content: Use the figure-ground principle to organize content in a way that’s both logical and intuitive. When designers separate the foreground and background, they can create a really clear visual hierarchy. That will guide the users’ attention to the most important content showing on the screen. Sometimes, designers can do this directly over the background with text—but they can also include boxed content to show users even more noticeable content. 

    Screenshot of Ocean Health Index homepage.

    Ocean Health Index’s homepage exemplifies the use of figure-ground to organize content so users can easily see what they can do.

    © Ocean Health Index, Fair use

  • Enhance the user experience: Above all, it’s important to use the figure-ground principle to create a truly visually appealing and easy-to-use interface. This will make it easier for users to understand the content and navigate the interface, resulting in a more positive user experience. 

    Screenshot of Trellis homepage.

    Trellis’s homepage shows how figure-ground enhances the content, with well laid-out and contrasted “figure” elements—the text—set against an appealing and appropriately fertile-looking “ground.”

    © Trellis, Fair use

    Some tips to use the figure-ground principle include these: 

    • Use a limited number of colors to create contrast and focus the user’s attention on the most important elements. 

    • Use shapes and sizes to create a good visual hierarchy. It’s important to make sure that the foreground elements are larger than the background elements. 

    • Use shadows or outlines to separate foreground elements from background elements—this will create a sense of depth in the design. 

    • Make sure that the figure and ground have enough contrast so they’re easily distinguishable. However, don’t have so much contrast that it becomes too distracting for users. Too much contrast can be garish and strain their eyes. If there’s any doubt about contrast, use a contrast checker—such as WebAIM—to make sure there’s enough to make the work both accessible and effective. 

    • Take advantage of negative space—leave some areas blank or with minimal content in them. This helps keep the interface organized and clutter-free. What’s more, the calm, unbusy space will keep the background from competing with the foreground. It will also give users a fast track to interpret the message the designer’s presenting to them. 

    • Be careful not to make the design ambiguous. Remember, the Rubin vase is an example of ambiguity—and in that sense is a kind of optical illusion. However, in a design for an interface, it’s important to give users a clear understanding of what’s going on. Any hesitation from users—for instance, because they’re uncertain where the focal point is—will almost certainly work against the brand message. 

    • Remember the user’s culture. Users from some parts of the world may interpret figure-ground relationships entirely differently from—say—an American consumer context. So, it’s essential to be sure to accommodate these if designing for a global market. 

    More Examples of Good Figure-Ground Designs by Brands

    1. Apple is known for its minimalist design—and the figure-ground principle is a key element of its design philosophy. In the Apple Music app—for instance—the foreground and background are clearly separated. The album cover is the figure, and the background is a solid color. This creates a clear visual hierarchy, something that makes it easy for users to identify the most important elements on the screen. 

Screenshot of Apple Music app.

Apple Music offers clear selections by using a cleanly separated foreground and background.

© Apple Music, Fair use

  1. Naya’s homepage exemplifies a really effective use of figure-ground for its water products. The contrast of the logo over the outdoor picture is one such example. Also note the image. With the athletic woman in the foreground and the misty backdrop, viewers have connotations of healthy exercise and fresh, dew-soaked nature. 

    Screenshot of Naya.com

    Naya’s figure-ground use echoes the natural and health-oriented essence of the company.

    © Naya, Fair use

  2. Amazon’s iconic “Add to Cart” and “Buy Now” buttons show how to leverage figure-ground on a website. They’re virtually unmissable and entirely self-explanatory to users who want to buy desired items. 

    Screenshot of Amazon.com search result for a product.

    Amazon’s two buttons here are calls to action that stand out well against a background that includes white space.

    © Amazon, Fair use

    Remember to take full advantage of the Gestalt principle of figure-ground. It’s a fundamental concept in visual perception—and it plays a vital role in UI design, and for good reason. So, it’s vital for designers to use contrasting colors, balance elements, organize content—and enhance the user experience. That way, they can make interfaces that are visually appealing and functional—and ones that are easy to use and understand. And these can be ones that will be both visually appealing and user-friendly—digital interfaces that users will “get” and take to quickly. 

    Learn More about the Law of Figure-Ground 

    Take our course to learn all about the Gestalt laws and more: Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide. 

    Read our piece The Laws of Figure/Ground, Prägnanz, Closure, and Common Fate – Gestalt Principles (Part 3) for examples of figure-ground and other Gestalt principles. 

    Find further fascinating insights in this article: Exploring the Gestalt Principles of Design by Cameron Chapman. 

    Check this article out for further in-depth information on the law of figure-ground: The Law of Figure-Ground: Designing for Contrast by Incharaprasad.

Questions related to Law of Figure

What is an example of the law of figure-ground?

The figure-ground law is all about the human tendency to perceive objects or visual elements as either being in the foreground or the background. A real-world example that illustrates this principle is the perception of an image where the figure stands out prominently in the front—while the ground recedes into the back. For instance, in an image of a white apple sitting on a black background, observers focus on the white apple as the figure—while the black background stays as the ground. This is a determination that occurs quickly and subconsciously in most cases. It lets users discern what to focus on—and what to ignore—in design work and a brand’s product. The figure-ground principle is a fundamental concept in visual perception and design projects—and that includes product design and how you set out visual information in a user interface or web design. It plays a crucial role in various design disciplines—including user experience (UX) design and graphic design. 

How does the figure-ground principle affect visual perception in design?

The figure-ground principle has a great influence on visual perception in design. This principle asserts that people instinctively perceive objects as either being in the foreground—figure—or the background—ground. That perception’s critical in design because it affects how users discern and process information in a visual layout. 

In design, when you use the figure-ground principle well, it can direct the viewer's attention and improve readability and comprehension for them. For instance, a well-designed webpage uses contrasting colors, shapes and sizes to make sure that the main content—the figure—stands out against the background—the ground—which helps with quick information processing. Similarly, in UI design, buttons or interactive elements often appear as figures against a less prominent ground. That makes them easily identifiable and actionable for the user. 

One interesting fact about this principle is its roots in Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than its parts put together. Designers apply this principle to create a cohesive and harmonious visual experience that guides the viewer's eye naturally across the layout. 

For actionable insights, consider: 

  • Contrast: Use contrasting colors or shapes to make the figure stand out. 

  • Size and position: Place important elements—figures—in positions where they’re easy to notice. 

  • Simplicity: Avoid cluttered backgrounds that can make the figure less distinguishable. 

Can you give examples of the figure-ground principle in web design?

The figure-ground principle plays a crucial role in web design since it’s got an influence on how users perceive and interact with content. Here are some examples: 

  • Contrasting colors: Websites often use contrasting colors to distinguish text—figure—from its background—ground. For example, black text on a white background or vice versa. This contrast makes the content stand out and improves the readability factor greatly. 

  • Whitespace: A really effective use of whitespace can highlight key elements on a webpage—by setting them apart from the background. For instance, a call-to-action button with enough whitespace around it becomes more prominent and so attracts the user's attention. 

  • Layering and depth: When you create a sense of depth through shadows or layering, you can make certain elements appear to “pop out”—figure—against a flatter background—ground. This technique often features in card designs or modal windows. 

  • Images as background: Sometimes, a large, muted image serves as the background—ground—with text or other interactive elements overlaid as the figure. This approach can create a visually striking and engaging user interface. 

  • Navigation menus: In navigation menus, the currently active menu item often appears highlighted with a different color or style—something that makes it stand out against other menu items. This uses the figure-ground principle to indicate to users where they are in the website. 

  • Hover effects: When users hover over links or buttons, a change in color, size, or style can make these elements stand out—figure—against the rest of the content—ground—which is a good indicator of interactivity. 

These examples showcase how you can apply the figure-ground principle in web design to boost the user experience as you guide attention, improve usability and make a more visually appealing interface. 

What is the role of the figure-ground principle in UI design?

The figure-ground principle plays a critical role in UI (user interface) design. It’s got a profound influence on how users perceive and interact with an application or website. And it’s a foundational rule for you as a designer to create interfaces that are both aesthetically pleasing and functionally clear. Its role to assist you as a designer is that it can: 

  • Enhance usability: The figure-ground distinction helps users notice actionable items—like buttons and links—quickly. When these elements are clearly set as figures against a contrasting ground, it lessens cognitive load; plus, it makes navigation and interaction more intuitive. 

  • Guide user focus: Designers use the figure-ground principle to direct the user's attention to the most important elements. For instance, if you highlight a “Sign Up” button against a background that’s less prominent, you can make sure that it catches the user's eye. 

  • Organize information: In UI design, information hierarchy is an immensely key factor. When designers succeed in differentiating figures—primary information or actions—from the ground—background or less critical information—they can organize content in a way that naturally guides the user through the interface. 

  • Add aesthetic appeal: Beyond functionality, this principle contributes to the aesthetic value of the design. A well-executed figure-ground relationship adds depth and visual interest—which makes the UI more engaging and enjoyable to use. 

  • Create context: If they use backgrounds (the grounds) effectively, UI designers can make a context for the primary elements (the figures). This context helps get the right mood, theme or brand message across, and gives a boost to the overall user experience. 

  • Improve accessibility: A good and proper use of the figure-ground principle helps when it comes to accessibility. A high level of contrast between elements and their backgrounds can make the interface more usable for individuals with visual impairments. 

Overall, the figure-ground principle in UI design is an essential tool to help you create interfaces that aren’t just user-friendly and easy to navigate but visually compelling and accessible, too. It’s a fundamental part of ensuring that your interface communicates effectively with its users. 

What are the common mistakes when applying figure-ground in graphic design?

When you apply the figure-ground principle in graphic design, watch out for several common mistakes—ones that can detract from the effectiveness and appeal of your design. Here are key ones to keep in mind: 

  • Beware of insufficient contrast: One of the most frequent errors designers make is to fail to create enough contrast between the figure—the main element—and the ground—the background. Poor contrast can lead to elements blending into the background, which makes them difficult for users to distinguish and diminishes the design's impact. 

  • Don’t overcrowd elements: If you clutter a design with too many elements, it can confuse the figure-ground relationship. This overcrowding makes it challenging for viewers to pick out the main focus. That will lead to a loss of visual hierarchy and make the user’s interest fall. 

  • Beware of inconsistent focal points: A common mistake is having multiple elements competing for attention as the figure. This inconsistency can confuse viewers about where to focus—so, it can dilute the message or purpose of the design. 

  • Don’t neglect whitespace: Another mistake is to underestimate the power of whitespace—negative space. That space is a crucial part of a clear figure-ground distinction in your design work. So, help your designs breathe and keep the elements nice and uncramped. When you have the spacing right, your website or app can grab your users subtly in a seamless experience. 

  • Don’t misuse color and texture: Any inappropriate or excessive use of colors and textures can disrupt the figure-ground relationship. The result is that it can either overly complicate the background or cause the main elements to lose prominence. 

  • Don’t ignore contextual relevance: Sometimes, designers might choose a figure-ground relationship that doesn’t line up with the context or message of the design. This mismatch can lead to a confusing or misleading visual narrative—and work against the whole user experience. 

  • Beware of a lack of focal hierarchy: If you fail to establish a clear hierarchy of elements, it can lead to a disorganized and ineffective design. Each element should have a defined role and level of prominence relative to other ones. 

So, avoid these common mistakes; it’s crucial for you to effectively apply the figure-ground principle in graphic design. When you do that, you’ll help make sure clear communication is a reality, give a boost to the visual appeal and improve the effectiveness of the design all in all. 

How does color influence the figure-ground relationship in designs?

Color has a profound bearing on the figure-ground relationship in design—in that it affects how users distinguish between the main elements—figure—and the background—ground. In the realm of design—particularly when it comes to user interfaces and graphics—the figure-ground principle explains how humans separate visual elements according to contrast and color. 

  • Contrast and visibility: Strong color contrast between an element and its background makes the element stand out as the “figure,” easily catching the user's attention. For instance, a bright button on a dark background is immediately noticeable, and it guides the user’s interaction. 

  • Guiding user focus: Color can direct user focus to key elements. So, use colors to make critical elements like call-to-action buttons or navigation links stand out—so users interact with these elements intuitively. 

  • Emotional and psychological impact: Colors do evoke emotional responses—something that you can use to emphasize the figure-ground relationship. Warm colors—like red and yellow—can be signifiers of energy or alertness, while cool colors—like blue and green—can induce a sense of calmness. Use these psychological effects to reinforce the importance or functionality of specific elements. 

  • Creating depth and layering: Different color shades can create a sense of depth—and make some elements appear closer (figure) and others farther (ground). This depth perception helps in terms of layering information effectively, and giving the usability a boost. 

  • Harmony and balance: While color goes a long way to differentiating elements, it's crucial to keep harmony and not overwhelm users with too many high-contrast elements—something that can lead to confusion or fatigue. 

What are some highly cited academic papers about the Law of Figure-Ground?

Here are some highly cited pieces of research about the Law of Figure-Ground: 

  1. Wagemans, J., Elder, J. H., Kubovy, M., Palmer, S. E., Peterson, M. A., Singh, M., & von der Heydt, R. (2012). A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: I. Perceptual grouping and figure–ground organization. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1172-1217.  

This extensive review traces the history and evidence for key Gestalt principles of perceptual grouping and figure-ground organization, evaluating modern computational models and neuroscience evidence. It provides a foundation for theory and research on the figure-ground principle.  

2. Peterson, M. A., & Gibson, B. S. (1994). Object recognition contributions to figure-ground organization: Operations on outlines and subjective contours. Perception & Psychophysics, 56(5), 551-564.  

This tests how familiar configuration affects emergence of subjective contours and figure-ground perception, relating principles to object recognition. Relevant to leveraging affordances in interface design.  

3. Driver, J., & Baylis, G. C. (1989). Movement and visual attention: The spotlight metaphor breaks down. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 15(3), 448-456.  

An influential publication on attention and figure-ground perception during motion, challenging spotlight metaphors. Relevant to animation and video interfaces. 

How does figure-ground theory apply to mobile app design?

Figure-ground theory plays a crucial role in mobile app design since it’s got a large bearing on how users perceive and interact with app elements. This Gestalt psychology principle states that people instinctively separate images into “figure”—the focal point—and “ground”—the background. In mobile app design, this translates to how users discern interactive elements—buttons, icons, text—from non-interactive backgrounds. 

When you apply it effectively, figure-ground theory ensures that users can easily identify important elements—something that enhances the user experience. For instance, a button with a contrasting color against a subtle background prominently stands out. It guides the user's focus and action. What’s more, this theory helps you create a visual hierarchy—one where the most important elements—like call-to-action buttons—are what users perceive as figures, which draw their immediate attention. 

You as a designer can use this theory when you play with colors, shapes and textures to make more depth and focus. When you clearly differentiate between the figure and ground, it helps to lighten the cognitive load for users—which makes the app more intuitive to use. What’s more, if you use whitespace effectively enough, you can amplify the figure-ground relationship. That will give a further boost to user engagement and the app’s usability. 

Even so, it's vital to strike a balance. If you overemphasize certain elements or overcrowd the design, it can lead to confusion and work against the user experience. If you thoughtfully apply figure-ground theory, you can make aesthetically pleasing and functionally superior mobile app designs. 

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Literature on the Law of Figure-Ground

Here’s the entire UX literature on the Law of Figure-Ground by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about the Law of Figure-Ground

Take a deep dive into Law of Figure 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.

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