Tuesday, 25 November 2008

What is Gestalt psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behaviour as a whole. Originating in the work of Max Wertheimer, Gestalt psychology formed partially as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt. The development of this area of psychology was influenced by a number of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The word Gestalt in German literally means "shape" or "figure."
  • Wilhelm Wundt is best known for establishing the first psychology lab in Liepzig, Germany, generally considered the official beginning of psychology as a field of science separate from philosophy and physiology. In addition to this accomplishment, Wundt also established the psychology journal Philosophical Studies. Structuralism was the first school of psychology and focused on breaking down mental processes into the most basic components. Researchers tried to understand the basic elements of consciousness using a method known as introspection. By today’s scientific standards, the experimental methods used to study the structures of the mind were too subjective—the use of introspection led to a lack of reliability in results.
  • Other critics argue that structuralism was too concerned with internal behaviour, which is not directly observable and cannot be accurately measured.
Gestalt psychology is a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic (meaning that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”, that is the idea that all the properties of a given system (biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. Therefore, reductionism is sometimes seen as the opposite of holism.), parallel, and analogue, with self-organizing tendencies; or, that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. The Gestalt effect refers to the form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves.

"The fundamental "formula" of Gestalt theory might be expressed in this way,” Max Wertheimer wrote in 1924. “There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.”

Have you ever noticed how a series of flashing lights often appears to be moving, such as neon signs or strands of Christmas lights? According to Gestalt psychology, this apparent movement happens because our minds fill in missing information. This belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts led to the discovery of several different phenomena that occur during perception. Based upon this belief, Gestalt psychologists developed a set of principles to explain perceptual organization, or how smaller objects are grouped to form larger ones. These principles are often referred to as the “laws of perceptual organization.”

Prägnanz (German. n. conciseness, concision, quality of being brief and comprehensive, succinctness) is the fundamental principle of gestalt perception, also referred to as the law of prägnanz, which says that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric, and simple. According to Robert Sternberg (See Cognitive Psychology, 3rd Ed., Thomson Wadsworth© 2003), Gestalt psychologists attempt to discover refinements of the law of prägnanz, and this involves writing down laws which hypothetically allow us to predict the interpretation of sensation, what are often called “gestalt laws.” However, it is important to note that while Gestalt psychologists call these phenomena “laws,” a more accurate term would be “principles of perceptual organization.” These principles are much like heuristics, which are mental shortcuts for solving problems. You will find below some of the different ‘Gestalt laws’ of perceptual organization, with the law of Prägnanz being the most general law.

Law of Prägnanz

The law of Pragnanz is sometimes referred to as the law of good figure or the law of simplicity. This law holds that objects in the environment are seen in a way that makes as simple as possible. According to the law, we are innately driven to experience things in as good a gestalt as possible. “Good” can mean many things here, such a regular, orderly, simplicity, symmetry, and so on, which then refer to specific gestalt laws. For example, a set of dots outlining the shape of a star is likely to be perceived as a star, not as a set of dots. We tend to complete the figure, make it the way it “should” be, finish it. Like we somehow manage to see this as a "B"...

One very important aspect of Prägnanz is figure – ground relationship. This aspect is often elaborated as an extension of general law of Prägnanz or the law of similarity. Camouflage has a direct bearing on figure-ground relationship.

However, it was Edgar Rubin, a Danish psychologist, who was the first to systematically investigate the figure-ground phenomenon. The phenomenon captures the idea that in perceiving a visual field, some objects take a prominent role (the figures) while others recede into the background (the ground). The visual field is thus divided into these two basic parts. This effect is often used by smart logo makers, as in the three figures suggest: The logo of visitnorway.com (see figure left-above) can be viewed as both three separate elements of blue, green and navy colour. It may, however, also be viewed as a person stretching his/her arms into the air. Similarly, the logo of the Gnome Desktop Environment (see figure on the right) can be viewed as both a "G" and a footprint. Lastly, the Macintosh logo (see figure below)be viewed as a regular happy face and a happy face in profile (looking at a computer screen).

Common to these logos is that you can focus on only one "interpretation" at a time; you cannot observe both the figure and ground at the same time, as ground will become figure when shifting the focus.

It should be noted that the figure-ground is most often exemplified using the Rubin Face/Vase Illusion, named after Edgar Rubin.

Law of Closure

According to the law of closure, things are grouped together if they seem to complete some entity. Our minds often ignore contradictory information and fills in gaps in information. In other words, the mind may experience elements it does not perceive through sensation, in order to complete a regular figure (that is, to increase regularity) i.e. the law of closure says that, if something is missing in an otherwise complete figure, we will tend to add it. A triangle, for example, with a small part of its edge missing, will still be seen as a triangle. We will “close” the gap.

In other words, the law of closure posits that we perceptually close up, or complete, objects that are not, in fact, complete. In the figure on the left the letters 'I', 'B', and 'M' although the shapes we see, in fact, are only lines of white space of differing length hovering above each other.

Similarly, we see the figure on Paul Thagard's book (see figure on the left) as forming a three-dimensional box although all we see, in fact, is 24 dissimilar red shapes (count for yourself!) on a dark red background. The figure above is the typical textbook example of the law of closure; we perceive a circle and not 8 individual circles.

The Gestalt approach can be said to be a "bottom-up" theory as it starts from the bottom (the aspects of the stimuli that influence perception) and work its way up to higher-order cognitive processes. An example of another bottom-up theory (of perception) that is well-known in the HCI community is James Gibson's theory of "direct perception" (see affordances and perception).

Law of Similarity

The law of similarity holds that things which are similar in some way appear to be grouped together. Grouping can occur in both visual and auditory stimuli. In other words, the mind groups similar elements into collective entities or totalities. This similarity might depend on relationships of form, color, size, or brightness. According to the law, we will tend to group similar items together, to see them as forming a gestalt, within a larger form. Here is a simple typographic example:


It is just natural for us to see the o’s as a line within a field of x’s.

Law of Proximity

According to the law of proximity, things that are near each other seem to be grouped together. In other words, spatial or temporal proximity of elements may induce the mind to perceive a collective or totality i.e., things that are close together as seen as belonging together. For example:




You are much more likely to see three lines of close-together *’s than 14 vertical collections of 3 *’s each.

The law of proximity posits that when we perceive a collection of objects, we will see objects close to each other as forming a group. In figure on the left, we perceive the MTV logo and the logo for the Europe Music Awards as forming a group in the top left corner and the logos of the sponsors as forming a group in the bottom right corner. The white space separating the two groups of logos is used to indicate 'grouping', and the proximity of the logos of each groups is thus used to this end. Thus, a semantic separation of 'organisers' from 'sponsors' is achieved via structuring the graphical layout in accordance with this simple principle of perceptual organisation.

Figure, see on the right, is taken from Kazaa Media Desktop, where the law of proximity is used in designing the user interface of the popular peer-to-peer (P2P) software. As shown by the screen dump, the user can choose between P2P and web search. The group of radio buttons underneath are only associated with the P2P search and not the web search. To signal this association to the user, the vertical row of radio buttons are placed comparatively closer to the P2P-search radio button. Figure below is a typical textbook example, exemplifying how the law of proximity groups the items into 3 groups as opposed to 8 individual items.

Law of Symmetry

According to the law, symmetrical images are perceived collectively, even in spite of distance. The law of symmetry captures the idea that when we perceive objects we tend to perceive them as symmetrical shapes that form around their centre. Most objects can be divided in two more or less symmetrical halves and when for example we see two unconnected elements that are symmetrical, we unconsciously integrate them into one coherent object (or percept). The more alike objects are, they more they tend to be grouped.

In the figure on the left, CSC Finland's logo is perceived as an integral whole although the two constituent geometrical shapes seem to be pointing in different directions and have differing colours.

A typical textbook example of the law of symmetry (see figure on the right-below), consists of a configuration of a number of brackets. When perceiving the configuration, we see three pairs of symmetrical brackets as opposed to 6 individual brackets, or two pairs and two singles. This happens despite what is suggested by some of the brackets immediate proximity to each other. Despite the pressure of proximity to group the brackets nearest each other together, symmetry overwhelms our perception and makes us see them as pairs of symmetrical brackets.

Law of Continuity

The law of continuity holds that points that are connected by straight or curving lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path. Rather than seeing separate lines and angles, lines are seen as belonging together. That is to say that the mind continues visual, auditory, and kinetic patterns.

When we can see a line, for example (as in figure on the left), as continuing through another line, rather than stopping and starting, we will do so, as in this example, which we see as composed of two lines, not as a combination of two angles.

Law of Common Fate

According to this law, elements with the same moving direction are perceived as a collective or unit. The law of common fate states that when objects move in the same direction, we tend to see them as a unit. In the other words, the law of common fate is a Gestalt principle of organization holding that aspects of perceptual field that move or function in a similar manner will be perceived as a unit.

Gestalt grouping laws do not seem to act independently. Instead, they appear to influence each other, so that the final perception is a combination of the entire Gestalt grouping laws acting together. Gestalt theory applies to all aspects of human learning, although it applies most directly to perception and problem-solving. The law of common fate is one of the visual perception laws as theorized by gestalt psychologists. Paul Martin Lester, the author of Visual Communication, an expert in the field wrote: “the law of common fate…A viewer mentally groups five arrows or five raised hands pointing to the sky because they all point in the same direction. An arrow or a hand pointed in opposite direction will create tension, because the viewer will not see it as part of the upwardly directed whole."

Gestalt’s law of common fate is a pretty simple concept. It is basically referring to visual directional lines within a design or layout. In a photograph, if two or more people are moving in the same direction, they have created a directional line known as the law of common fate. Together, they have a common fate or destiny. Another example of the law of common fate could include similar shapes aimed in the same direction. You might wonder why the law of common fate is of importance to artists. First of all, when two objects (whether it be shapes or organic forms) are pointed in the same direction in a layout, the directional lines become dominant in a design. So, if two or more powerful shapes are aimed at or moving in a certain direction, an artist knows to put the message at the point of destination.

Directional lines push our eyes around a page. This can be a problem every bit as much as bonus. For instance, visual collisions frustrate the viewing audience. It can cause too much tension and cause anxiety for the reader which in turn, makes the layout uninviting and too intense.

If a candid photograph of a moving car is heading to the right, the law of common fate dictates that the directional line is pointing to the right. Then again, if a candid photograph of a car is aimed towards the left and the image is part of a design, the directional line is now aimed towards the left. Therefore, if a car is headed towards the right (on an image), the image of the car should be placed towards the left-hand side of a layout, because our eyes read from left to right. This is why the law of common fate is so important. The law of common fate should not be ignored in graphic designs and advertisements. Understanding the law of common fate and how directional lines work on layouts can make all the difference in how information is read and understood.


  1. Vacche, Angela Dalle. (2003). The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History. Rutgers University Press.
  2. Lester, Paul Martin. (2005). Visual Communication: Images with Messages. Thomson Wadsworth.


Sherry said...

wow! That is such a comprehensive study...what an effort!


Anonymous said...

Can I use your two faces/vase image for a philosophy article I am working on?

David Resnik

Anonymous said...

Can I use your Gestalt vase/face image for a philosophy paper I am working on?
David Resnik

Jared Lichtenstaedter said...

Hey, I used your image of the Rubin Vase on my blog, Thanks!

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