The Gestalt Principle of Proximity for Designers, Explained

Including illustrated examples of the proximity principle in action.
Lukas Oppermann is the principal experience designer and design lead for Deutsche Telekom and the creative director of veare.
Lukas Oppermann
Expert Contributor
May 3, 2022
Updated: May 11, 2022
Lukas Oppermann is the principal experience designer and design lead for Deutsche Telekom and the creative director of veare.
Lukas Oppermann
Expert Contributor
May 3, 2022
Updated: May 11, 2022

According to gestalt psychology, we need to organize what we see to make sense of the world. Without using patterns to order our vision, we would overwhelm our brain. The Gestalt psychologists formalized those patterns as the Gestalt principles of perception.

The gestalt principles of grouping are part of the most important design theories. Organizing information means understanding. A designer’s task is to make content as easy to understand as possible. Proximity is one of the most common principles. In the following I will provide some examples to show the importance of this principle.

What Is Gestalt?

The word “gestalt” (pronounced guh-shtaalt) means “form” or “pattern” in German, and it reflects the idea that the whole can be different than the sum of its parts. The brain does more than just add up available sensory information, it creates a perception of them, a meaning. This happens in predictable ways, and these are outlined in the principles of perception defined by the psychologists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka. (Source: OpenStax Psychology)

 

What Is the Gestalt Principle of Proximity?

The principle of proximity states that we perceive objects which are close to one another as a group. This is true even if the color, size, or shape of the objects differ. The following example illustrates the principle of proximity. In the first image you see one group of circles. In the second image you see three groups (columns) of circles. The only thing that changed is the distance between (or rather, proximity of) some of the circles.

An illustration of dots, on the left they are equidistant from each other and on the right there are three sets of dots grouped more closely together, giving the appearance of columns of dots.
Proximity is a powerful way to group objects into logical sets.

The principle of proximity is stronger than other gestalt principles. You can see below that the circles still appear grouped, even when they differ in shape or color. Thus proximity is stronger than, for example, the principle of similarity.

An illustration of dots, two groups on the right and left. On the right, all the dots are black and appear as two columns. On the right, the dots are a mix of black and red, but they still appear as two columns.
The principle of proximity is more powerful than the gestalt principle of similarity (in this case, of color).

Proximity can help you define the direction of the viewers’ attention. Below you see either rows or columns, depending on the proximity of the elements.

An arrangement of dots. On the left, they are spaced so that they appear to be columns. On the right, they appear to be rows.
The principle of proximity can imply directionality.

Many designers use the principle of proximity without even knowing or thinking about it. Yet, I would argue, it is always helpful to know why this strategy works. This way you can reason about a design and explain issues to colleagues. And your developer colleague will understand why you need a space of 5px horizontally and 15px vertically between your cards.

The gestalt principles also make for a great checklist when something feels off about a design.

 

Examples (with Images) Using the Gestalt Theory of Proximity

Typography and Copy

Proximity is a very important part of making a text easy to read. For example, a headline must have more space before it than after. By being closer to the section it belongs to, it feels more connected to it. Line height is another example. Space between lines must be bigger than between words, but small enough so they form a paragraph. The same is true for letter spacing. The spacing must be wide enough so letters are distinguishable but small enough to form words from the individual letters.

Those rules apply in digital and print design alike.

An array of different sized lines showing apparent groups implied by the lines’ proximity to one another.
The Gestalt proximity principle helps to define connection between different objects or lines of text on the page.

 

Print Layouts

Even though the focus of this article is on digital work, it makes sense to look at print layouts first. Print is the basis for the layouts we build on the web and it makes understanding the principle much easier. In a magazine’s layout, the image descriptions can be in different positions on the page. Yet, due to the close proximity to only one image, it is immediately clear which text belongs to which image.

Four large boxes have groups of lines arranged next to them, making it clear by close proximity which text belongs with which image.
Even though the objects are all different sizes and arranged asymmetrically, it’s still clear which text belongs to which image.

By adjusting the proximity of the elements, you form groups of similar information. For example, contact details like phone number, email address and website on a business card. This makes it easier for the viewer to find a piece of information quickly.

Two business cards with different arrangements of contact information.
Grouping the address information and digital contact information together makes the card on the right easier to read.

 

Presentation Slides

Presentation slides are somewhat close in layout to print. Slides are often done by non-designers and, as a consequence, suffer from neglecting gestalt principles. For example, when presenting the steps in a project, you need to make sure it is obvious which step belongs to which phase. This makes understanding the slide easy and fast.

 

Website Menus

Today’s websites are full of content, making grouping the items all the more important. Menus are typically on the left or on the top of the website. Especially for top menus, it is fashionable to add a lot of space between the menu items. This is fine as long as you make sure to have all other content even further away from the items. Otherwise it will be hard to recognise the items and the menu itself.

 

Content Previews

Content pieces like previews or quotes consist of different parts like images, headlines and copy. To make them seem like one item, e.g. an article preview, the space between them must not be too big.

 

Cards

Whenever you have different groups of cards you need to make sure that the space within a group of them is smaller than the space to the next group.

A simulated abstract webpage. Small changes in spacing in the version on the right makes the header, main content, and sidebar more distinct than the version on the left.
A bit more space in the design on the right makes the different sections of the website more distinct.

 

Forms

Forms are an important part of the internet. Most desired actions, like paying or signing up, use forms. Here user abandonment rates are a problem and creating easy-to-use forms can improve them. With the use of proximity, you can make it clear which label and which description belongs to which field. This will make your form easier to use and your users will be less likely to leave.

Proximity connects elements
Changes in spacing make it clear which line of text belongs with which box.

 

App Menus

Many app menus have huge gaps between the icons and the labels. This adds mental complexity to your design as the user needs to organize the interface in their head. Take care to get your proximities right and the interface will be much easier to understand.

 

Lists in Apps

Every app has some list screens, so learning how to make them better is very valuable. The goal with designing lists is to make the individual items distinguishable. To reduce visual noise, you can use proximity instead of lines between items. Just make sure you have a visibly larger space between items than between the elements an item consists of.

Proximity links content
Creating more visual space around distinct items makes them easier to read.

 

App Dashboards

Dashboards often show stats, be it your sports activities or car usage. When adding a label above or below those numbers make sure to visually group the correct elements together.

 

Car Dashboards

Car interfaces have to be usable in stressful situations while the user focuses on the road. This is why elements in a car are grouped by proximity to form thematic units.

This is why everything concerning lights is grouped on the left of the steering wheel. Interface elements related to driving are grouped around the steering wheel. Entertainment-related items are in the middle console. And mirror and window buttons are on the driver window, close to where they take effect. This grouping makes it easier to find and remember the elements.

 

Summary

Proximity is a very powerful gestalt principle that helps you to structure your designs and group content together. While many designers use proximity unconsciously in their designs, it can be a very helpful tool especially in complex screens where adding elements to group content adds too much visual distraction.

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