The designer's guide to Gestalt Theory

In the 1920s a group of psychologists in Germany developed a series of theories of visual perception, describing how viewers group together different objects into groups or a single coherent whole when the separate elements are arranged together in a particular way. The prominent founders of the collection of theories and principles are Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka.

The term Gestalt means 'unified whole', which is a good way of describing the over-arching theme behind the principles: if you collect together your design elements in an arrangement using one of the approaches, your design will feel more connected, coherent and complete.

Rudolf Arnheim

These principles were developed over a number of years, but came to prominence in part thanks to Rudolf Arnheim's 1954 book, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (ISBN: 978-0-520-02161-7) which has become one of the must-have art books of the 20th century, and regularly features on university course text lists.

While it's well worth reading Arnheim's book, to summarise there are six common, basic Gestalt Principles:

  1. Similarity
  2. Continuation
  3. Closure
  4. Proximity
  5. Figure/Ground
  6. Symmetry and order

We've broken each of these down with a simple example below.

01. Similarity

Gestalt Theory

This design has similarity because the individual elements that make up the design have the same basic shape characteristics

When objects looks similar to one another, viewers will often see the individual elements as part of a pattern or group. This effect can be used to create a single illustration, image or message from a series of separate elements.

Gestalt Theory

Attention is drawn to the different element in this composition because it breaks the pattern of similarity

The similarity between different elements can be shape, colour, size, texture or value. The more commonality that individual elements have, the greater the sense of coherence, thanks to similarity.

Gestalt Theory

This cover for the Beatles' album Hard Day's Night uses the principles of similarity and anomaly

A particular element can be emphasized when it's dissimilar, breaking the pattern of similarity. This effect is called an anomaly.

02. Continuation

Gestalt Theory

In this example the eye is led through the first design element towards the star that aligns with the curve

Continuation is the principle through which the eye is drawn along a path, line or curve, preferring to see a single continuous figure than separate lines. This can be used to point towards another element in the composition, and is seen where a line is cut through one object, often in a curve, aligning perfectly with a secondary element.

Gestalt Theory

This illustration consists of 4 lines that meet at the central point, but we prefer to see two intersecting lines rather than 4 lines that converge

03. Closure

Gestalt Theory

The World Wildlife Fund logo uses the closure principle to describe a panda, even though the shape is not fully closed

Closure is a common design technique that uses the human eye's tendency to see closed shapes. Closure works where an object is incomplete or the interior space of an element is not fully closed, but the viewer perceives a complete shape by filling in the missing information. This technique is often associated with stenciled artwork, but is also closely associated with logo forms.

Next page: more on the Gestalt theory