Gestalt Principles

We will begin our explorations in Design 1 by investigating Gestalt Theory, below is a brief explanation of some principles of Gestalt visual organization.

The study of gestalt originated in Germany in the 1920’s. It is a form of psychology that is interested in higher order cognitive processes relative to behaviorism. The aspects of gestalt theory that interests designers are related to gestalt’s investigations of visual perception, principally the relationship between the parts and the whole of visual experience.

The visual world is so complex that the mind has developed strategies for coping with confusion. The mind tries to find the simplest solution to a problem. One of the ways it does this is to form groups of items that have certain characteristics in common.

Most of what you will study about gestalt is concerned with how these groups are formed and what effect they have on perception; the stronger the grouping, the stronger the gestalt. It is this grouping that contributes to the unity in a design. Gestalt is one of the most powerful tools available to a designer for creating unity.

How the eye organizes sees the world.

Gestalt theory is particularly valuable for understanding where visual organization starts, because it gives concrete evidence to how the eye organizes visual experiences.

1. The parts of a visual image may be considered, analyzed, and evaluated as distinct components.

2. The whole of a visual image is greater than the sum of its parts.

When confronted by a visual image, we seem to need to separate a dominant shape (a ‘figure’ with a definite contour) from what our current concerns relegate to ‘background’ (or ‘ground’). An illustration of this is the famous ambiguous figure devised by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin.

Images such as this are ambiguous concerning figure and ground. Is the figure a white vase on a black background or two silhouetted profiles on a white background?

Perceptual set operates in such cases and we tend to favour one interpretation over the other. Altering the amount of black or white which is visible can create a bias towards one or the other.

When we have identified a figure, the contours seem to belong to it, and it appears to be in front of the ground.

Gestalt theory can be broken down into several principles of visual organization.

1. FIGURE/GROUND (stimulus) – The fundamental principle of perception which allows us to read imagery. This is made possible by contrast.

Example: The photograph below of a single beach stone by Josie Iselin is an excellent example of a figure (the stone) againts the ground (white space).

Another aspect of figure/ground is the gestalt concept of AREA. The principle of area states that the smaller of two overlapping figures is perceived as figure while the larger is regarded as ground. We perceive the smaller square to be a shape on top of the other figure, as opposed to a hole in the larger shape. We can reverse this perception by using shading to get our message across, as seen below.

2. SIMILARITY – The degree of sameness to each other; sensations are grouped and ordered in the mind based upon their likeness toward one another.

Example: The color print titled Lysergic Acid Diethylamide by Damien Hirst below shows multi-colored dots in a simple grid pattern. The repetition of the dots and the colors shows two levels of similarity, one based on the shape, and the other based on the colors.

Another example of similarity in combination with a powerful use of figure/ground sensation is this paper cutout titled The Passage, by Dylan Graham.

3. PROXIMITY – Degree of distance between sensations; sensations are favored according to nearness of their parts. Closer parts from groups by visually uniting.

Example: The photograph below of a four beach stones by Josie Iselin is an excellent example of a proximity because is shows how three differently shaped stones positioned near each other form a group which is distinct from the larger stone.

4. CONTINUANCE – Grouping that results in a continuation of direction; sensations are grouped into directional forms when the receiver reads motion implied by position.

Example: The photograph below of a a sequence of beach stones by Josie Iselin is an excellent example of a continuance because it shows how the progression of shapes laid out in a clear sequence imply movement and direction.

Another example of this concept below shows how a simple line can create continuance across several shapes.

5. CLOSURE – Grouping into recognizable forms or shapes. Sensations are grouped into complete visual form through principles of similarity, proximity, and continuance. The principle of closure applies when we see complete figures even when part of the information is missing.

We see three black circles covered by a white triangle, even through it could just as easily be three incomplete circles joined together. Our minds react to patterns that are familiar, even though we often receive incomplete information. It is speculated this is a survival instinct, allowing us to complete the form of a predator even with incomplete information.

Example: The photograph by Josie Iselin below of a group of beach stones juxtaposed together along a layer of white sediment begins to imply the closure of a looped line.

These principles of visual organization serve the overarching concept that the simplest and most stable interpretations are favored.

What the Gestalt principles of visual organization suggest is that we may be predisposed towards interpreting ambiguous images in one way rather than another by universal principles. We may accept such a proposition at the same time as accepting that such predispositions may also be generated by other factors. Similarly, we may accept the Gestalt principles whilst at the same time regarding other aspects of perception as being learned and culturally variable rather than innate. The Gestalt principles can be seen as reinforcing the notion that the world is not simply and objectively ‘out there’ but is constructed in the process of perception.

Depth & Rhythm

Jim Lambie, Zobop (Metalic Color Stairs),2005, Vinyl tape, Dimensions variable, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

The illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface is evident through perspective by organizing items from a certain point of view.

There are three types of perspective: atmospheric, aerial and linear.

1. Atmospheric perspective gives a faraway effect by means of pale or diffused textures and colors.

This photograph by Ansel Adams is a perfect example of atmospheric perspective.

2. Aerial perspective indicates distance through blurred lines, decreased sizes, and diminished details.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the Arch of Titus, from Vedute di Roma, c. 1770

3. Linear perspective. In this type of perspective parallel lines that recede into the distance, at a vanishing point, appear to get smaller and closer together or converge (figure 1). Another visual clue to notice in linear perspective is when two objects are placed on the same surface or horizon line, the lowest part of a near subject is lower in a picture than the lowest part of a farther subject (figure 2).

Rhythm is the principle of art that indicates movement by the repetition of elements or objects. In visual rhythm, you receive through your eyes rather than through your ears. Visual rhythm is created by repeated positive shapes separated by negative spaces. The repeated shapes are like the beats in music. Visual rhythms create a sensation of movement-like the real action of a bouncing ball and your eyes bounce from one shape to the next. A group of artists called the Futurists used rhythm to capture the idea of movement itself. They showed the forces of movement, called dynamism, by slanting and overlapping surfaces.

Futurist: Giacomo Balla, Speed of a Motorcycle, 1913, Oil on Canvas

Regular Rhythms – AB,AB,AB is the most common type. Picture alternating stripes of two colors, for instance.

Happy Holiday, © 2009 Agnes Martin

Frank Stella Title   Tomlinson Court Park Medium   Enamel on canvas Size   84 x 109 in. / 213.3 x 276.8 cm. Year   1959

Progressive Rhythms – Progression occurs when there is a gradual increase or decrease in the size, number, color, or some other quality of the elements repeated. AB,AABB,AAABBB,AAAABBBB or ABC,ABD,ABE,ABF,ABG,ABH,ABI

Here are some examples of progressive rhythms by the artist Bridget Riley.

Bridget Riley, RA Inverted, 2009, Screenprint in colours, Edition of 85. h: 116 x w: 99 cm / h: 45.7 x w: 39 in

Here is a video of artist Jim Lambie installing a floor piece at the Museum of Modern Art.


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