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Gestalt Principles in Graphic Design

Gestalt Principles in Graphic Design

Graphic design
June 9, 2022
8 minutes

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Ask any designer about the gestalt principles, and they will know what you’re talking about. For those new to the world of design, don’t worry. Let’s break down the six principles one by one and get you up to speed.

Gestalt psychology is first and foremost about the human mind, but since it’s focused on how we perceive things, it significantly influences design.

Even if you aren’t a design professional and have never heard of gestalt principles, they could still be helpful to you.

If your mind is filled with questions such as “why are the gestalt principles important?” and “what are the gestalt principles?” you’ve come to the right place. We’ll go over each principle to brush up on your design knowledge and see how these principles matter.

Why are the gestalt principles important in graphic design?

Simply put, they can significantly improve any design, whether it’s a website, an app, a business card, or anything else that requires graphic design. Naturally, you want these assets to be visually striking. That’s where the gestalt design principles come in.

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If you’re not yet up to speed on the importance of good graphic design, this neat list of benefits here will get you there in minutes.

How will you ever judge your assets if you don’t have the faintest clue about good design? Knowing the basic principles of design is vital to getting stunning designs yourself.

What are the gestalt principles?

The gestalt principles are an important set of ideas that, when implemented correctly, can significantly improve the aesthetics, user-friendliness, and functionality of a design.

Gestalt is the German word for ‘shape’ or ‘unified whole.’ Our brains are exceptional when it comes to seeing the bigger picture. It’s why we see faces or objects in clouds or trees, for example.

Austro-Hungarian psychologist Max Wertheimer wrote the most influential proposal of the theory of gestalt psychology in 1923. But essays date as far back as 1890.

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought looking at the human mind and behavior as a whole. It suggests that we don’t simply focus on every small component in the world around us but rather see it as an entirety.

It has played a massive role in the modern development of the study of human perception. Therefore, it’s no wonder it has been incredibly influential in graphic design.

In the simplest form, the theory is based on the idea that the human brain will attempt to simplify complex images by organizing multiple elements into a whole rather than a series of disparate elements.

Our brains are built to see structure and patterns to better comprehend our environment.

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1. Similarity

Grouping together similar things is human nature. We like to order things alike, whether by shape, color, or form. The gestalt principle of similarity is when we see elements sharing characteristics as more related than those that don’t.

In graphic design, this principle of similarity is used more often than you think. It works both ways: grouping things together by color to show they correlate or in contrast leaving one element out to draw attention.

A call-to-action button often differs in color so that it stands out. The same goes for a link in the text, usually colored and underlined. Then again, each link and call-to-action button is formatted similarly, allowing viewers to make that instant connection.

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Let’s take the call-to-action button in the design above as an example. It instantly draws your attention since it clearly stands out from the design.

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2. Good figure

The theory of good figure in gestalt design is when we perceive ambiguous shapes as simple as possible. It’s also known as the law of good figure, or prägnanz in German.

The Olympics logo is a classic example of gestalt design. How would you describe it? If you’d describe it as five overlapping circles, that’s the law of good figure in action. Seeing it as a combination of curvy lines would be more complicated to comprehend, so we automatically perceive it as overlapping circles instead.

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Monochrome logos via Olympics.com

Even in its monochrome form, your brain will still comprehend the logo as five overlapping circles rather than curvy lines.

Viewing an object in its simplest form will help us recall things much quicker, since we demand fewer cognitive resources.

3. Proximity

The principle of proximity in gestalt psychology relies on the fact that we define whether elements are related based on distance. Elements placed close to each other are deemed more related than elements set far apart.

Your audience will recognize individual elements clustered together in one area or group as one entity.

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In the menu of the ManyPixels blog, you can see the principle of proximity in action. The main topics are placed in close proximity, so we instantly understand they have the same function. However, the magnifying glass and a call-to-action button are clearly placed further to the right, indicating a different functionality.

4. Continuation

The gestalt principle of continuation posits the human eye will follow the smoothest path. We see elements that are on the same line or curve as more related than those outside of the path.

This continuity perception is a valuable tool for directing your visitors through elements a certain way.

Our eyes naturally follow lines, so if you want to draw attention from one item to the next, it’s wise to quite literally put them in line. Horizontal sliders and social media carousels are both examples that take advantage of this principle.

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You can see the principle of continuity in the above graphics created by one of ManyPixels’ designers. Rather than seeing each image as a separate entity, the white and blue elements seamlessly continuing onto the next image indicate they are grouped.

5. Closure

Closure is the idea that your brain can automatically fill in the blanks when looking at an image or design.

We try to bring meaning and order to any meaningless chaos. Our eyes do that via reification: making sense of something by filling in missing data.

A simple example is your eyes following along with a dotted line. The World Wildlife Fund logo is a famous example of a more complex application. The outline of the panda isn’t complete; large chunks are missing. However, your brain has no problem filling those in automatically.

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WWF logo via 1000Logos

The principle of closure is a tool to make clever logos, but it’s also a tool to show your audience there is more if they swipe, scroll or turn over the page. You can do this by letting an image or object fade onto the next page.

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6. Figure/ground

Also known as the principle or law of perception, this gestalt idea posits that people instinctively perceive objects as either figure (the focal point) or ground (background). This means our brain automatically distinguishes elements in the foreground or background of an image.

Things get interesting when the foreground and background both contain distinct images, like this film poster for Peter and the Wolf:

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Pinterest

The fox poses in a way that the negative space creates the profile of a boy, presumably Peter. This is an excellent example of gestalt design showing how to use negative space creatively.

Newer principles

More recently, the principle of common fate or synchrony was added to the gestalt principles. The principle states that we group things that are either moving or pointing in the same direction.

It often refers to a group of individual elements, but since they move seemingly as one, our brains group them and treat them as a single stimulus. Elements don’t necessarily have to move, but they do have to give the impression of motion.

An example in our surroundings is a flock of birds. Rather than processing every bird as a distinct element, we see the flock as an entity.

Gestalt principles in graphic design

From the 1920s, designers began incorporating gestalt principles in their work. It led designers to believe that we all share specific characteristics in perceiving visual objects. Therefore, we all have a natural ability to see ‘good’ design.

After all, gestalt psychology and graphic design have a lot in common. Both rely heavily on creative problem-solving. Gestalt design is a natural forthcoming combining the two.

Embracing gestalt design can positively affect your design and how others perceive it. Similarity can create cohesiveness, leading to recognition of your brand, for example.

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It allows for visual hierarchy, ensuring that the most critical element attracts attention first. Additionally, gestalt principles help take the guesswork out of design, minimizing confusion and frustration among viewers.

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Final thoughts

These principles also give you a glimpse of what is happening behind the scenes of a design process. It goes to show how much more graphic design is than just a pretty image.

Familiarizing yourself with basic design principles such as the principles of gestalt will help you identify good design. This is a vital skill for any designer, but it’s just as essential to anyone who requests design.

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Guest Writer: Simone Timmers

June 9, 2022

Simone is a Dutch writer, currently living in Malawi. Whenever not stringing words together, or on her yoga mat, she is preferably exploring any off the beaten track she can find.