Guide to the Gestalt Principles: The Role of Gestalt Laws In Design

By: DavidPage

What are the Gestalt Principles?

The Gestalt principles or Gestalt laws are a school that attempts to explain the human perception of visual elements. These laws were developed in the early 20th century by a group German psychologists including Kurt Koffka and Max Wertheimer. They are based upon theoretical concepts from Gestalt psychology. The Gestalt theory states that the human eye can see complex images that are composed of many elements against a background. This causes the brain to attempt to organize the individual elements into a system that views the objects as one whole. German for “unified whole”, “Gestalt” means “unified whole”.

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Concerning visual perception, the school is grounded by the law of pragmatics, which states that the human brain naturally gravitates towards the most basic form of perceptual organization. This organizes objects into connected groups that make up a whole. This is called perceptual grouping.

These laws can be applied to neurology, certain schools of psychology like social psychology, or as guidelines for visual design.

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What are the Gestalt Principles?

There are nine basic principles to gestalt.

  1. The law of closure: If visual elements are part of a closed image, they can be grouped according to the law of closure, also known as reification. Our minds will perceive an incomplete image, which is one that has a missing element or one that is suggested by dotted lines, as a whole. It will not be a picture with broken and complete lines. Invariance is the ability to perceive the entire figure without making any changes such as a lack of closure.
  2. The law of common area: This law states that elements will be grouped in a closed space or boundary. These elements will be viewed in our minds as a part of a single group, and distinct from elements in other closed areas or anywhere else in the space.
  3. The law of continuity. This law, also known as the law of continuity, good continuation or principle of continuity is a law that states our minds will see elements as a whole when they are aligned in some way. We will see two objects as one if they cross paths.
  4. The law of common destiny: Although not one of the original principles of Gestalt, it has been accepted by Gestalt as one of its laws. Common fate simply means that objects perceived to be moving in the same direction or oriented in the same direction as each other are considered part of a group. The human eye perceives cars driving in the same direction as each other on the freeway.
  5. The law of the figure-ground: Edgar Rubin, a Danish psychologist, helped to establish the figure ground principle or multistability. This allows you to see two objects from three-dimensional perspectives and one object (usually the largest) is regarded as the background or negative space and the smaller object as the foreground. Rubin’s vase is a great example of this concept. It shows two images, a vase and a pair of faces in the same 3D space.
  6. The law of the focal point: If we are looking at a group of objects it is the one that draws our attention to the most.
  7. The law of proximity: According to the principle of proximity objects are grouped according how close or distant they are to other objects. They are perceived by the human eye as groups that have no concrete borders.
  8. The law of similarity: This principle states that objects will be grouped together if they share the same characteristics, such as their color or shape. If there are commonalities within an array of identically shaped items, we can group them together.

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The law of symmetry: If we are presented with ambiguous forms, such as one that combines elements from a square, circle, or triangle, our minds will see them as separate, symmetrical objects rather than as one whole.

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