Gestalt Principles

Gestalt is also known as the "Law of Simplicity" or the "Law of Pragnanz" (the entire figure or configuration), which states that every stimulus is perceived in its most simple form.

Gestalt theorists followed the basic principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the whole (a picture, a car) carried a different and altogether greater meaning than its individual components (paint, canvas, brush; or tire, paint, metal, respectively). In viewing the "whole," a cognitive process takes place – the mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole,

We visually and psychologically attempt to make order out of chaos, to create harmony or structure from seemingly disconnected bits of information.

The prominent founders of Gestalt theory are Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka.

1. Figure/Ground  

This principle shows our perceptual tendency to separate whole figures from their backgrounds based on one or more of a number of possible variables, such as contrast, color, size, etc.

A simple composition may have only one figure. In a complex composition there will be several things to notice. As we look from one to another they each become figure in turn.






The focus at any moment is the figure.

SkyandWater.jpg (773533 bytes) M. C. Escher Sky and Water 1 1938

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Everything that is not figure is ground.

As our attention shifts, the ground also shifts so that an object can go from figure to ground and then back.
Ground is sometimes thought of as background or negative space.  

Figure-ground refers to the relationship between an object and its surround. Sometimes the relationship is stable, meaning that it is easy to pick out the figure from the ground. 

Henri Matisse

La Danse (I)1909 8'6 1/2" x 12'9 1/2" (259.7 x 390.1 cm),

La Musique 1910, Dance (II) 1910, 8'5 3/8" x 12'9 1/4" (260 x 389 cm)

Dance (II) 1910, 8' 5 5/8" x 12' 9 1/2" (260 x 391 cm)

Other times the relationship is unstable, meaning it is difficult to pick out the figure from the ground. Rarely, the relationship is ambiguous, meaning that the figure could be the ground or vice-versa.


Clearly differentiate between figure and ground in order to focus attention and minimize perceptual confusion.


Camouflage is the deliberate alteration of figure-ground so that the figure blends into the ground. 


During the Gulf War, all tanks had to be repainted from a woodland camouflage pattern to a desert camouflage pattern because camouflage is terrain specific. That specificity is also evident when one goes to purchase camouflage clothing; it comes in several patterns, each best suited to particular environments or seasons.

Camouflage material may have a single color, or it may have several similarly colored patches mixed together. The reason for using this sort of pattern is that it is visually disruptive. The meandering lines of the mottled camouflage pattern help hide the contour -- the outline -- of the body. When you look at a piece of mottled camouflage in a matching environment, your brain naturally "connects" the lines of the colored blotches with the lines of the trees, ground, leaves and shadows. This affects the way you perceive and recognize the person or object wearing that camouflage.

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Grant Wood helped develop the US military's camouflage during World War I.

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waldo.jpg (186184 bytes) findtheman.jpg (228993 bytes) african.gif (168230 bytes) Dali, "L'image disparait," 1938.


The Camouflage House

Desiree Palmen

2.  Similarity

Gestalt theory states that things which share visual characteristics such as shape, size, color, texture, or value will be seen as belonging together in the viewer’s mind. 

In the graphic below, the viewer is likely to discern a shape in the middle, though each individual object is the same color.

simShape.gif (3641 bytes)

• Repetition of forms or colors in a composition is pleasing in much the same way rhythm is pleasing in music the forms aren't necessarily identical - there may be tremendous variety within the repetition, yet the correspondence will still be discernable.

• Like static and dynamic tension a deliberate use of similarity in composition can impart meaning to the viewer that is independent of the subject matter of the image.

• Similarity or repetition in an image often has connotations of harmony and interrelatedness, or rhythm and movement.

Ilse Bing

• good composition: regardless of the subject matter, makes some use of similarity in arranging elements and space for aesthetic advantage.  

Rιpιtition d'un Ballet. 1874   Carol Golemboski

In Edgar Degas' The Millinery Shop notice the repetition of the circle motif. Circles represent objects such as hats, flowers, bows, the woman's head, bosom, and skirt, etc. The painting is a whole design of circles broken by a few verticals (the hat stand, the ribbons, the back draperies) and a triangle or two (the table, the woman's vent arm, and the front hat's ribbons).

  Edgar Degas The Millinery Shop. 1879-1884

3.  Proximity

The Gestalt law of proximity states that "objects or shapes that are close to one another appear to form groups". Even if the shapes, sizes, and objects are radically different, they will appear as a group if they are close together.

Fruitbowl.jpg (18212 bytes) mangoes.jpg (33045 bytes)

• refers to the way smaller elements are "massed" in a composition.

Bill Brandt

• Also called "grouping," the principle concerns the effect generated when the collective presence of the set of elements becomes more meaningful than their presence as separate elements.

Arnold Newman

• Arranging words into sentences or titles is an obvious way to group unrelated elements to enhance their meaning (it also depends on a correct order for comprehension).

• Grouping the words also changes the visual and psychological meaning of the composition in non-verbal ways unrelated to their meaning.

• Elements which are grouped together create the illusion of shapes or planes in space, even if the elements are not touching.

• Grouping of this sort can be achieved with:

The painting by Thomas P. Anshutz of workers on their lunch break shows the idea in composition. The lighter elements of the workers' upper bodies contrast with the generally darker background. These light elements are not placed aimlessly around the composition but, by proximity, are arranged carefully to unite visually. Arms stretch and reach out to touch or overlap adjoining figures so the bodies form a large horizontal unit stretching across the painting.

Thomas P. Anshutz. The Ironworkers' Noontime


Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, c. 1510. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam demonstrates the expressive power of proximity.


4.  Closure

The satisfaction of a pattern encoded, as it were, into the brain, thus triggering recognition of the stimulus. This can involve the brain's provision of missing details thought to be a part of a potential pattern, or, once closure is achieved, the elimination of details unnecessary to establish a pattern match.


Kanizsa Illusion

• Imaginary lines called vectors, or shapes called counter forms, are generated by these relationships, which the eye understands as part of the composition even though there is "nothing there.

• Vectors and counter forms exert forces and tensions that are as real in defining its underlying structure as the elements that are visible.

• Linear vectors direct the path of the eye through the composition and determine where the eye will go once it is attracted by the prominent features of the composition.

• A vector can be straight or curved, depending on the relationships that form it.

• Counter forms, (or negative spaces), determine to a great extent whether or not the composition will be perceived as a harmonious whole. Counter forms "echo" the positive visual elements with "similarity," or create powerful substructures that support and connect visible elements.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.jpg (519964 bytes) The Great Wave Off Kanagawa copy.jpg (519651 bytes) The Great Wave Off Kanagawa copy 2.jpg (65074 bytes) The Great Wave Off Kanagawa copy 3.jpg (65092 bytes) Untitled-1.jpg (55795 bytes)

Katsushika Hokusai The Great Wave Off Kanagawa
From "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji"; 1823-29 


• Closure can be thought of as the tension or "glue" that holds a two-dimensional structure together.  


5.  Good Continuation (Continuity)

This Gestalt law states that learners "tend to continue shapes beyond their ending points".

The edge of one shape will continue into the space and meet up with other shapes or the edge of the picture plane.

The example below illustrates that learners are more apt to follow the direction of an established pattern rather than deviate from it. 

We perceive the figure as two crossed lines instead of 4 lines meeting at the center.

Continuity.gif (1632 bytes)

Continuity in the form of a line, an edge, or a direction from one form to another creates a fluid connection among compositional parts.

In Degas' drawing the line of the round tub starts at the bather's hairline, meets her fingertips, and joins the vertical line of the shelf where the brush handle overlaps. The circular shape of the bather's hips is tangential to the same shelf edge. The objects on the shelf barely touch and carry the eye from one to another.

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1886. Pastel


6.  Symmetry or Order

Symmetry states that the viewer should not be given the impression that something is out of balance, or missing, or wrong.  

If an object is asymmetrical, the viewer will waste time trying to find the problem instead of concentrating on the instruction.

• Order has connotations of stability, consistency and structure.

• An orderly arrangement of elements has connotations that will be perceived either positively or negatively by a viewer depending on the purpose of the communication and the viewer's personality.

• Utilitarian information (instructional or technical design) will be more effective if the presentation is orderly, especially if it must be comprehended quickly.

• Texts and illustrative material may also need to be orderly; especially if the organization sponsoring the communication wishes to be perceived as orderly and well run (annual reports are typically clean, orderly documents).

• People are accustomed to receiving information in a systematic and organized manner and will be frustrated by material that requires too much work to comprehend.

• Some viewers associate order with institutional rigidity or social conservatism and will reject or be "bored" by communications that seem too highly structured.

• Developing judgment about audience preferences and tolerances with respect to order is central to the designer's task.

• The goal is to be structured and equally engaging.




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