Principles Of Gestalt Psychology In Seeing

27th October 2016 by Archie Pottinger

Telling someone that you’re using ‘Gestalt Psychology’ in their design always sounds good. In reality, when Gestalt psychology is applied to the act of seeing, it’s not as complex as it sounds. It is, however, a bit scary when you go too deeply into it. So, as Halloween is approaching, let’s go a bit too deeply into it…

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Overall, Gestalt psychology can get pretty complicated and involved. Basically, it’s a theory of mind developed by the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology (who are every bit as complicated as they sound!). The term ‘Gestalt’ roughly translates as ‘shape’ or ‘form’, and the Gestalt theory holds that humans tend to pluck solid ‘shapes’ and ‘forms’ out of what is actually an abstract world. If you want to go deep into theory of mind, there’s all kinds of Gestalt stuff you can read up on about humanity’s attempts to shape meaning out of chaos. If cognitive processes float your boat (and why wouldn’t they?), you can check out Gestalt theories on how our brains present us with entire forms and concepts rather than with more abstract lines, dots, and random occurrences. However, for our purposes, let’s stick strictly to Gestalt designs…

Optical Illusions


We’re all familiar with the kinds of images above. When we were kids we loved to work out whether we were looking at two people kissing or a candlestick, and marveled as the young woman transformed into the old lady and back again. Our innate Gestalt tendencies ensure that our brains are continually trying to give the lines and colours we see a solid form – to tell us what we’re looking at. When it sees a clever design like the ones above, it struggles to work it out, meaning that while some people see an old lady, others see a young woman with her face turned away. At the risk of igniting a furore once again – remember That Dress? Some people swore blind that it was white/gold, while others were equally convinced that it was blue and black. For a period of 48 hours, the planet was plunged into existential crisis over the shading of one Scottish woman’s wedding outfit. Even though it was proven to be blue and black, many (including myself!) have only ever been able to see it as white and gold. We were left with a sense of betrayal by our own brains – and we weren’t far wrong. The reason that many could only ‘see’ the dress in certain colours was because that was the interpretation their brains had chosen from the available information – and, for many, their brains stuck to their lie very firmly, despite external evidence to the contrary! What we ‘see’ is by no means what is actually there. It’s simply our brain’s interpretation of what’s there. Creeped out? Well, moving swiftly on, let’s have a look at how we can mess with everybody else’s sanity, and utilise Gestalt principles in design.

Gestalt Design

Gestalt principles are used widely in design to make an appealing product. Collecting the elements of your design together and unifying them in some way will please the Gestalt-y brain of the customer, which is perpetually seeking to unify and connect disparate elements. This doesn’t mean that your entire design has to have a solid form – simply that a degree of connection between elements will satisfy the customer’s eye in accordance with the laws of Gestalt. Elements can be unified in several ways – through similarity of design or colour, through continuation of line or theme, through proximity, through symmetry…however you choose to impose a unifying order upon your design, the gods of Gestalt will approve. Of course, you could go completely the other way, and absorb your customer’s brains in trying to find unity in a completely chaotic design – this could be a winning strategy for certain products. What you decide to do is entirely up to you – but remember, the brains of your customers are almighty tricksters, and whatever you ‘see’ in your design, they may well see something else entirely…

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