The Laws of Figure/Ground, Prägnanz, Closure, and Common Fate - Gestalt Principles (Part 3)
- 1k shares
- 3 years ago
The law of Prägnanz—or principle of simplicity—is a fundamental Gestalt psychology law concerning how humans process visual information. It states that people usually perceive complex things as simplified forms to easily recognize and understand what they see. Designers cater to this tendency to see things as the sum of simple parts in digital products.
"Prägnanz" is a German word that spans the concepts of salience, conciseness, and orderliness. It translates to “good figure” or “pithiness.” It also goes by the names “the law of good Gestalt” and “the law of simplicity.” It’s key among the Gestalt principles of grouping and a vital part of graphic design, visual design, user experience (UX) design and—particularly—user interface (UI) design. The Gestalt principles of grouping describe how humans perceive visual elements and simplify complex images. This is a crucial factor when you as a designer create products. From your work on websites to mobile apps, the design elements you include need to “grab” users from the get-go. Pragnanz is therefore a fundamental part of each product or service you produce.
According to Gestalt psychologists, our minds innately tend to perceive patterns using five main categories: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, and connectedness. The law of Pragnanz is closely related to these categories and serves as a guiding principle for visual perception. Whenever viewers—or users—see complex or highly intricate shapes in a design, their eyes simplify these. They do so by removing the excess detail from the shapes to make a single, unified whole. This is a quick and automatic process since the human mind dislikes chaos and strives for order. Users don’t even have to think about what they’re doing or force the process. It just happens. For example, in the image below, the mind makes sense of the design to see black and white arms and hands in a figure-ground format where the background and foreground work together.
The concept of Prägnanz was the brainchild of Max Wertheimer, a German psychologist. Wertheimer was one of the founders of 1920s’ Gestalt psychology, along with fellow psychologists Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka. The law of Prägnanz (with the umlaut, as spelled in German) is one of the centermost principles of Gestalt psychology. In Wertheimer's 1923 paper on Gestalt theory, he discussed the idea of Prägnanz as a fundamental principle of human perception. However, the exact definition and interpretation of Prägnanz have evolved over time. That has led to different understandings and descriptions of the concept as it relates to various fields. These fields include graphic design and product design, and involve great attention to detail for UX and UI designers.
Despite these different definitions, the Gestalt school of thought proposes fundamental laws about how a person perceives objects, whatever the medium. The effects of some lines or curves are central to this school of psychology. And so is the point that an image is different from the sum of its parts. What’s more, the mind’s lightning-fast perceptions of images mean that the Gestalt laws are timeless. So, the law of Pragnanz is a powerful truth in design, a vital frame of reference, a handy real-world “barometer” for aligning users’ expectations with your business goals, and a kind of tool that your design includes. This is also true of the principle of similarity, principle of proximity, and principle of closure. As are the principle of uniform connectedness, principle of continuity, principle of closed region, and more.
There may be varying interpretations of the law or principle of Pragnanz, but it’s generally understood as the law of Simplicity. As the human mind has a natural preference for order and organization over chaos, when presented with visual stimuli, we tend to simplify complex shapes and forms into more recognizable and understandable patterns. This way of simplifying what we see lets us process information more easily and efficiently. That fact is extremely helpful when users encounter a graphical user interface (GUI) for a product or service.
In UX design and UI design, the law of Pragnanz has a particularly special place. It suggests that simplicity and clarity are key elements in creating effective visual communications with strong visual hierarchy, use of spacing—or white space or negative space—and more. When you present information clearly and concisely, you as a designer can enhance how your users retain information and engage more with your audience. The law of Pragnanz reminds us that our designs should prioritize simplicity and avoid unnecessary complexity.
“People ignore designs that ignore people.”
— Frank Chimero, Author of “The Shape of Design”
Designers play a crucial role in creating interfaces that are intuitive, user-friendly, and visually appealing. The law of Pragnanz has strong implications for UX design. It acts as a guide for you to create interfaces that align with users at the level of how they tend to naturally perceive things. When you understand and apply the law of Pragnanz well, you can fine-tune the individual elements and information architecture of digital products and so create interfaces that are easy to navigate, visually pleasing, and memorable. The following are the main points to keep in mind:
Go for Simplicity and Clarity in Interface Design
One of the key principles that comes from the law of Pragnanz is the importance of simplicity and clarity in interface design. Your users arrive on your design with clear intentions as to what they want to do. So, they should be able to quickly and easily understand your UI’s purpose and functionality. Therefore:
Use clear and concise visual elements, such as simple shapes, minimal text, and intuitive icons. Users usually have an easier time appreciating shapes that are less demanding in terms of cognitive effort. For example, the circles of the Olympic Games are far more accessible to human eyes than abstract shapes would be. When you reduce visual clutter and complexity, you can create interfaces that are visually appealing and easy to understand.
Prioritize Hierarchy and Visual Organization
Another aspect of the law of Pragnanz that you can apply is to optimize the hierarchy and visual organization. Users should be able to easily distinguish and prioritize different elements on the interface. So:
Use visual cues such as size, color, and placement to guide users’ attention. For example, highlight important information using larger fonts or contrasting colors; present less important details in a more subdued way. If you’re designing a website, be sure to avoid overcrowded navigation with too many menu items, complex dropdown menus and the like. When you establish a clear hierarchy, you can help users navigate the interface more effectively.
Ensure Consistency and Familiarity
The law of Pragnanz also emphasizes the importance of consistency and familiarity. Users are more likely to understand and engage with interfaces that conform to established design patterns and conventions. So:
Use familiar icons, menu structures, and interaction patterns to create interfaces that feel intuitive and natural to users. Consistency in visual elements, such as color schemes and typography, can also contribute to a cohesive and visually pleasing interface. Most importantly, don’t confuse users or make them pause to think about your design. Let them take to it naturally and enjoy a seamless experience.
Some other examples from well-known brands that further illustrate how best to apply the law or principle of Pragnanz in UX design include:
Apple is renowned for its minimalist and user-friendly interfaces. The design of their products, such as the iPhone and MacBook, follows the principles of simplicity and clarity. The use of clean lines, intuitive gestures, and straightforward icons lets users easily navigate and interact with the interfaces. Because Apple follows the law of Pragnanz, it means that their products are visually appealing and user-friendly.
Popular cloud storage service Dropbox demonstrates the importance of hierarchy and visual organization in UX design. The interface effectively communicates the hierarchy of folders and files. It achieves this via the use of clear visual cues, such as folder icons and file thumbnails. Users can easily navigate through their files and locate specific items, thanks to the consistent and intuitive visual organization.
Remember, the law of Pragnanz can go a long way in helping you as a user experience designer to create effective and user-friendly interfaces. After all, Pragnanz is one of the centermost Gestalt laws. So, use it to make design works that align with users' natural perceptual tendencies and confirm the results with usability testing. Ultimately, it will result in more successful and satisfying user experiences overall.
Take our course 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), with examples of the Law of Pragnanz and other Gestalt laws.
See this article for additional tips, The Designer’s Guide to the Law of Prägnanz | Erkan Kerti.
Find further fascinating insights in this piece, The Law of Prägnanz in Gestalt Psychology and UX Design | Adam Farard.
The Google search interface is famously minimalist. A single search box on a clean, white background conveys simplicity and focuses the user's attention on the primary action—entering a search query. The absence of unnecessary elements aligns with the law of Pragnanz.
Yes, the law of Prägnanz is highly applicable to mobile app design. This principle of Gestalt psychology, which emphasizes the human tendency to perceive complex images in the simplest form possible, plays a crucial role for you to create effective and user-friendly mobile interfaces.
In mobile app design, the law of Prägnanz guides designers to create interfaces that are clear, uncluttered, and easy to navigate. This is vital because mobile screens are smaller, and users often interact with them on the go. Here's how you can apply the law of Prägnanz in mobile app design:
Simplicity: Mobile apps should feature simple, intuitive designs. Excess elements or overly complex layouts can confuse users. Apps with straightforward designs are more likely to be user-friendly.
Visual Hierarchy: When you organize elements according to their importance, you guide users' attention to key areas. This aligns with the law of Prägnanz, as users more easily understand and navigate simpler structures.
Iconography: Use clear and recognizable icons to simplify navigation and functionality. Icons should be self-explanatory, which will reduce the need for additional text.
Navigation: Simplified navigation menus, often represented by widely recognized symbols (like the hamburger menu for a navigation drawer), adhere to the law of Prägnanz. Users understand these symbols quickly, which makes navigation effortless.
Use of White Space: Adequate spacing between elements prevents overcrowding. This not only makes the app more visually appealing but also easier to use, as users can quickly identify and select the options they need.
The law of Prägnanz, vital in Gestalt psychology and design, suggests that people perceive complex images in the simplest form possible. However, there are limitations if you apply this law to complex designs:
- Over-Simplification: In an effort to adhere to the law of Prägnanz, designers might oversimplify complex concepts. That will lead to loss of essential information or functionality. This is especially problematic in designs that require detailed information or intricate functionalities.
- User Experience Trade-offs: While simplicity aids in immediate comprehension, it can sometimes compromise depth and richness of user experience. In complex applications, like advanced software tools or detailed data visualizations, oversimplification can make a product less effective.
- Diverse User Needs: Different users have varying levels of expertise and expectations. A design that appears simple and intuitive to one group might be too basic or lacking in depth for more advanced users. It can be challenging to balance simplicity with the needs of a diverse user base.
- Cultural and Contextual Differences: The perception of simplicity can vary greatly across different cultures and contexts. What people see as clear and straightforward in one culture might come across to people from another culture as confusing or overly abstract.
- Innovation and Creativity Constraints: Strict adherence to simplicity can sometimes stifle creativity and innovation in design. In certain cases, complexity is necessary to bring out a unique or groundbreaking idea.
In conclusion, while the law of Prägnanz is a powerful tool in design, it is crucial to consider the context, audience, and specific requirements of each project. So, strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity; it is key for you to create effective and engaging designs.
For instance, in logo design, companies often use simple, memorable shapes. Apple's logo is a great example. Its clear, minimalistic apple shape with a bite taken out is instantly recognizable and easier for the brain to process than a more detailed or complex design.
In web and app design, the law of Prägnanz is one thing that designers apply to create intuitive user interfaces. They design icons to be simple and representational, like a house for 'home' or a magnifying glass for 'search'. These simple shapes are what users quickly and easily understand, and this improves navigation and usability.
In physical product design, this law is visible in the simplicity and intuitiveness of everyday items. For example, the design of a door handle is often simple, signaling how to operate it (push down, turn, etc.) without the need for instructions. This intuitive design aligns with our tendency to seek the simplest solution in a given visual scenario.
These examples show how the law of Prägnanz influences design decisions to create products that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functionally efficient and user-friendly.
The law of Prägnanz and simplicity in design are closely related concepts, yet they have distinct differences.
The law of Prägnanz, a principle from Gestalt psychology, states that people will perceive and interpret complex images in the simplest form possible. This law is rooted in our cognitive tendency to organize our visual perception into simple structures. It's not just about creating simple designs but about how humans naturally interpret visual elements in their most basic, orderly, and symmetrical form.
Simplicity in design, on the other hand, refers to the deliberate choice to create products, interfaces, or visuals that are clear, uncomplicated, and easy to understand. To implement simplicity, you remove unnecessary elements and focus on essential features to improve usability and user experience. Simplicity aims to make designs more accessible, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing by reducing cognitive load on the user.
In essence, the law of Prägnanz explains a psychological tendency in perception, whereas simplicity in design is a practical approach in the creation of products and visuals. Designers often apply the law of Prägnanz to achieve simplicity in design, ensuring that their creations are not only aesthetically minimal but also align with the way users naturally perceive and process information.
Color and contrast are integral to the principle of Prägnanz in design. They significantly influence how users perceive and understand designs. The principle of Prägnanz, a key concept in Gestalt psychology, states that people will perceive and interpret complex images in the simplest form possible. This principle plays a crucial role in how you as a designer use color and contrast to create clear, effective, and aesthetically pleasing designs.
Use of Color: Colors can help you organize and differentiate elements in a design. You can use color to create focus, guide users' attention, and convey specific moods or messages. When you choose colors that contrast well, you as a designer can make essential elements stand out and ensure that users can easily understand your design at a glance.
Contrast in Design: Contrast is not just about color; it includes differences in size, shape, and texture. High contrast between elements helps you create visual hierarchies and guide the user's attention to the most important parts of the design. It makes the content more legible and helps in the quick comprehension of the design's layout and structure.
The principle of Prägnanz is indeed relevant in designing for accessibility. This principle, also known as the law of Simplicity, states that people perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex shapes in the simplest form possible. This concept is fundamental in accessibility design. That’s because it ensures that design elements are clear, straightforward, and easy to understand for all users, including those with disabilities.
In terms of accessibility, when you apply the principle of Prägnanz, it means that you create designs that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functional and straightforward to navigate. For instance, a well-designed website following this principle would have a clear structure, use simple shapes, and minimize visual clutter. This approach helps users with cognitive disabilities or those who use screen readers to better understand and navigate the content.
Here are some actionable insights:
- Use clear, simple layouts to enhance usability for users with cognitive impairments.
- Employ high-contrast color schemes to aid users with visual impairments.
- Ensure that interactive elements are easily identifiable and accessible to users with motor impairments.
- Implement clear, concise text and alternative text descriptions for images, benefiting users who rely on screen readers.
A real-world example of the principle or law of Prägnanz in accessibility is the use of icons with simple, recognizable shapes in user interfaces. These icons facilitate quicker comprehension, reducing cognitive load for users with learning disabilities.
Here are some highly cited academic papers about the law of Pragnanz:
1. Wagemans, J., Feldman, J., Gepshtein, S., Kimchi, R., Pomerantz, J. R., van der Helm, P. A., & van Leeuwen, C. (2012). A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: II. Conceptual and theoretical foundations. Psychological bulletin, 138(6), 1218.
Provides an extensive, modern analysis of conceptual foundations of Gestalt psychology, evaluating core principles like pragnanz that underlie visual perception and cognition.
2. Prägnanz in visual perception | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review - SpringerLink. (2023).
This article provides insights into the law of Prägnanz, offering a comprehensive exploration of its multifaceted nature and its significance in visual perception. It discusses the historical context and the essential role of the law of Prägnanz in guiding research on psychophysical organization, making it a valuable resource for understanding the complexities of this Gestalt principle. The article reviews Gestalt psychology’s answers to questions related to the Prägnanz concept, and promotes a renewed understanding of its central role in visual perception and beyond. It also discusses the four main uses of the Prägnanz concept in more detail, emphasizing its importance in revealing the principles that govern spontaneous self-organization in phenomenal experience, including visual perception.
To learn about the law of Pragnanz, 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.
Here are some popular books on the law of Prägnanz:
1. Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory by Michael Wertheimer. This book delves into the intricate story of Max Wertheimer and Gestalt theory, offering valuable insights into the historical and theoretical aspects of Gestalt psychology, including the law of Prägnanz. It provides a comprehensive exploration of the contributions of key figures in the development of Gestalt theory, making it a valuable resource for understanding the historical context and theoretical underpinnings of the law of Prägnanz.
2. Gestalt Psychology: A Survey of Facts and Principles by George W. Hartmann. This comprehensive book explores the theory and principles of Gestalt psychology, including the law of Prägnanz. It provides a detailed examination of Gestalt principles, making it a valuable resource for understanding the foundational concepts of Gestalt psychology.
Here’s the entire UX literature on the Law of Prägnanz by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Law of Prägnanz 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.
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.