Unraveling the 7 Gestalt principles

When we look around, our brains help us make sense of what we see. This ability to perceive and interpret our visual environment is primarily guided by the seven Gestalt principles.

What does “Gestalt” means?

Gestalt comes from a German word that means shape or form.

The Gestalt principles were first introduced by a group of psychologists in the early 20th century—known as the Gestalt psychologists. They conducted experimental studies and were able to develop an understanding of how people perceived the world around them.

Gestalt theories of perception are based on human nature being inclined to understand objects as an entire structure rather than the sum of its parts.

The seven fundamental Gestalt principles are:

1. Symmetry

The beauty of balanced composition

Symmetry, the first of the Gestalt principles, asserts that people like designs that are symmetrical.

*Symmetrical refers to something that is balanced or proportional on both sides.

When we use symmetry in design, it makes things stand out while being pleasing to the eye. Conversely, items that are out of place in an symmetrical arrangement will stand out more easily.

Symmetrical arrangements tend to stand out from the background. It increases perception and it is also easier to remember.

Practical applications

  • Use a symmetrical layout to create a sense of stability and order. This can be used for navigations menus, image galleries or product listings.
  • By placing elements symmetrically, you can draw attention to certain parts of the design, such as a specific call-to-action button.

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2. Proximity

Grouping by Closeness

The principle of proximity suggests that objects positioned close to each other are perceived as more related than those placed farther apart. When we group similar elements, we form clusters, creating a sense of unity or relatedness.

For example, when we group together random numbers, they can be perceived as a code or a phone number. However, the same numbers, when spaced apart, are seen as separate, individual numbers.

This principle plays an important role in UX design, where it helps users associate similar elements.

Elements that are located closer together in space or time tend to be perceived together. This illustration shows this principle with five columns of shapes separated vertically and horizontally by a wider space. The viewer perceives six separate groups of shapes.

Practical applications

  • Group related elements together such as navigation links or related products to create a visual hierarchy.
  • Use white space to separate different sections of a page for a clean and organized layout.

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3. Common Fate

Unity in Motion

The principle of common fate, though not originally included in the Gestalt theory, has emerged as a crucial aspect of visual perception.

This principle suggests that elements moving or pointing in the same direction are perceived as related.

Imagine a group of birds flying together in the same direction. Our brains see them as one unit because they move together.

Objects or elements moving in the same direction appear to be related. This illustration shows a flock of birds as part of one unified group.

Practical applications

  • Incorporate slide-out menus that move in the same direction as the user’s eye to create a cohesive design.
  • Animate related elements to move in the same direction to create a sense of unity.

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4. Figure-Ground Relationship

Distinguishing the Foreground from the Background

The figure-ground relationship means that our minds naturally separate objects into two parts: the foreground (figure) and the background (ground).

In any visual composition, the figure is the focal point, while the ground serves as the supporting backdrop. This principle is essential in design as it helps highlight the focal point and differentiate it from the rest of the composition.

We tend to perceive objects as either foreground or background. In this illustration, the woman’s silhouette is the focal point (figure).

Practical applications:

  • Use contrasting colors to create visual separation between foreground and background, making it easier for users to focus on the important content.
  • Use negative or white space to making it easier to identify and focus on main content.

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5. Similarity (or grouping)

The Power of Shared Characteristics

The principle of similarity states that objects with similar features are perceived as related. These features could be color, shape, size, or orientation.

For example, in blog posts, users can differentiate between headings, content, and links based on their design or formatting. By using similarity in design, users can easily distinguish between different elements on a page, which can enhance their overall user experience.

Similar objects tend to be perceived as a group. This illustration shows identically space circles and squares that are perceived as separate groups.

Practical applications

  • Group similar content together to create a clear an organized layout.
  • Create a visual hierarchy by using size, weight and color to differentiate important content from less important one.

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6. Continuity

Following the Flow

The principle of continuity suggests that our eyes tend to follow a continuous path, whether it’s lines, curves, or intersections. Once our eyes begin to follow a path, they will continue to travel in that direction until they encounter another object.

This principle aids in guiding a user’s gaze across the design elements.

We see lines and shapes arranged on a curve or line as smooth and connected even when they they are not. In this illustration, our eyes tend to follow the uninterrupted path created by the shapes.

Practical application

  • Create a visual flow that encourages users to move through your website in a logical and intuitive way.

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7. Closure

Completing the Picture

The principle of closure talks about how our brains can fill in the missing pieces of a picture or design to see the whole thing. If a design is not complete, our brains can still understand what it is supposed to be. This is like when we see a logo that is missing parts of its outline, but we still know what the logo is supposed to look like.

This principle is particularly prevalent in logo design, where it helps create meaningful and memorable designs.

Sometimes we see shapes that are not finished. In this illustration, the viewers see circles even though the lines are not connected.

Practical application

  • Create simple and memorable designs that suggest shapes without suggesting them fully.

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Key takeaway

Designers can create better user experiences by incorporating Gestalt principles into their work. Understanding how the human brain works and using these natural tendencies can help create designs that are user-friendly, intuitive, and visually pleasing.

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