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Theory of Design

Gestalt Theory of Perception

Gestalt theory first arose in 1890 as a reaction to the prevalent psychological
theory of the time - atomism. Atomism examined parts of things with the idea that
these parts could then be put back together to make wholes. Atomists believed
the nature of things to be absolute and not dependent on context.
1. Figure & Ground - The terms figure and ground
explain how we use elements of the scene which
are similar in appearance and shape and group
them together as a whole. Similar elements (figure)
are contrasted with dissimilar elements (ground) to
give the impression of a whole. In the picture to the
left, the lighthouse stands out as the figure, while
the horizontal blue lines are perceived as ground.

2. Similarity - The principle of similarity states that things

which share visual characteristics such as shape, size,
color, texture, value or orientation will be seen as
belonging together.

3. Proximity or Contiguity - The principle of proximity or

contiguity states that things which are closer together will
be seen as belonging together. Looking at the picture to
the right, since the horizontal rows of circles are closer
together than the vertical columns, we perceive two vertical
lines. Since the first two columns and the last two columns
have less space between them than the center two
columns, we perceive two groups of two columns.

4. Continuity - The principle of continuity predicts the preference

for continuous figures. We perceive the figure as two crossed
lines instead of 4 lines meeting at the center.
5. Closure - The principle of closure applies when we tend to
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.

6. 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

7. Symmetry - The principle of symmetry describes the

instance where the whole of a figure is perceived rather
than the individual parts which make up the figure.

Visual Perception
Visual perception is a function of our eyes and brain. We see images as a whole
rather then in parts.
1. Line - A line is the path made by a pointed inst
rument, such as a pen, a crayon, or a stick. A line
implies action because work needs to be done to
make it. We recognize objects or images only from
their outlines. Second, line is important because it is
a primary element in writing and drawing, and
because writing and drawing are universal. Third,
unlike texture, shape and form, line is unambiguous.
We know exactly when it starts and ends. Finally,
line leads our eyes by suggesting direction and

2. Shape - Closed lines become the boundaries of shapes.

Like with lines, there are many ways of categorizing
shapes. We can use their dimensions, for example,
distinguishing between two-dimensional shape and three-
dimensional shape. Or we can use their style (realism,
abstraction, etc), or their origin (organic or geometric) to
classify them.

3. Texture - Texture is an element of art that refers to the way

things feel, or look as though they might feel, if touched.

4. Color -
What we
perceive as color is primarily the wavelength the light stimulation. The
shortest viewable wavelength (about 380 nm) is what we see as blue and
the longest wavelength (about 760 nm) is what we see as red. The other
wavelengths that fall between them are what we see as other colors, as
shown in the figure below.