Gestalt Theory: A Refresher on the Psychological Principle Every Designer Should Know

Visual designers, consciously or not, make frequent use of gestalt principles in their work. Read on to learn more about the theory that influences design everywhere.

Written by Lukas Oppermann
Published on Jun. 14, 2023
Gestalt Theory: A Refresher on the Psychological Principle Every Designer Should Know
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Recently gestalt theory (also gestaltism) has gained immense popularity, especially for designers. In fact, it seems to be a trend. However, gestalt principles are very helpful and designers should know about them.

Most authors discuss gestalt principles in an abstract form. Others focus on print design. There are few articles about gestaltism in digital products. While different at first, digital and print products adhere to the same layout rules. The details might be different from print publications, but the ideas remain relevant.

In this article, I want to highlight the impact of gestaltism on digital design. Furthermore, I want to explain how and why gestaltism works in general. I have also written an article that discusses individual principles in detail and illustrates their application to digital design.

You can use gestalt principles without knowing about the gestalt psychology background. You probably use some of the principles in your designs already. However, using gestalt principles to explain your work is much more interesting. Clients and coworkers will understand your reasoning and why your solution works. For this it is important to not only know that there is a principle, but also why and how it works.

Read Lukas Oppermann’s Article on the Gestalt Principle of ProximityThe Gestalt Principle of Proximity for Designers, Explained

 

Gestalt Psychology in a Nutshell

Gestalt psychologists argue that we need to organize what we see in order to make sense of the world. There is a near infinite amount of information that reaches out retinas every second. Without using patterns to order it, we would overwhelm our brain.

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole. When trying to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we do not simply focus on every small component. Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as part of a greater whole and as elements of more complex systems. (Source: www.gestaltcleveland.org).

Psychologists describe this ordering process as the combination of sensations into coherent scenes. The result of this process is a percept. A percept is a subjectively experienced, conscious result of a perceptual process.

What Is a Percept?

A percept is an idea of what something is like that you get from your senses. (Source: Cambridge English Dictionary).

The idea is, that we make sense of our world by seeing the whole of it, rather than the individual parts.

 

The Origins of Gestalt Psychology

“Gestalt psychology” as a name is not clearly defined. It is used for many psychological ideas around perception. The base for all of the ideas is a paper by Christian von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano) written in 1890. In it, he introduced the concept of “Gestalt” to philosophy and psychology.

The Berlin Laboratory of Experimental Psychology defined what we know as Gestalt psychology. Founded in 1893, it was part of the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology. When Wolfgang Köhler took over the direction in 1922 it became a school for Gestalt psychology. Together with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, he founded Gestalt psychology as we know it.

The name comes from the German word, “Gestalt,” meaning shape or form. Gestalt psychology or gestaltism describes a school of thought in psychology and it focuses on our ability to find organizational principles in sensations.

The basis for gestalt psychology is an idea von Ehrenfels describes in his paper. Perception has qualities that are different to the simple combination of sensory qualities. To understand this, you first need to know what psychologists mean by a “quality” of a perception. A quality describes a sensation within a sensory domain like seeing or hearing. An electromagnetic wave that hits our retina can for example have a quality of “red” or “blue.”

Kurt Koffka rephrased this as “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts.” (Often wrongly quoted as “more than”.)

Imagine seeing a cat. What do you notice first? Do you perceive cat legs, cat ears, a cat body and a cat head, or do you see a cat? Max Wertheimer argued that we in fact perceive the whole cat first. Only once we have seen the cat, can we see the individual parts it consists of.

Psychologists would say that “gestalt” is perceptually primary. It means the whole defines the parts it is composed from. The opposite would mean the whole is a “secondary quality” that emerges from its parts. This would mean you see the parts first.

Because gestalt is perceptually primary, you see a cat and afterwards the stubby legs.

One criticism of gestalt psychology is that it is descriptive. This means it only describes psychological phenomenons. It can not make predictions or determine causality. Additionally, behavior is interpreted from the experience of a person. This is called qualitative research, which some people see as less reliable.

However, recently some quantitative studies have supported the idea of gestalt psychology. Quantitative research focuses on big data sets instead of intense personal questioning.

Read More About Design from Lukas Oppermann on Built In’s Expert Contributors Network11 Benefits of Design Systems for Designers, Developers, Product Owners, and Teams

 

What Are the Gestalt Principles?

The law of prägnanz is the fundamental principle of gestalt psychology. It states that we organize experiences (sensations) so they are regular, orderly, symmetrical and simple.

What Is the Law of Prägnanz?

People will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images as the simplest form possible, because it is the interpretation that requires the least cognitive effort of us. (Source: lawsofux.com).

Over time, gestalt was refined to include the principles of grouping.

The 8 Gestalt Principles of Grouping

  1. Proximity
  2. Similarity
  3. Closure
  4. Symmetry
  5. Common fate
  6. Continuity
  7. Good gestalt
  8. Past experience

Those explain how we combine the parts to a whole. An important realization is that the sum is different from its parts. This means a cat is not a mere collection of all parts that make it. In combination, those parts form a specific cat. One we recognise and attribute with a personality.

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