Gestalt – A Learning Theory for Graphic Design Education

Ian Jackson


This article will begin by seeking to define the notion of learning by, through and from experience. A linkage will then be established between these notions of experiences and gestalt theory. This will be explored within a subject specific context of graphic design. Links will be highlighted between the inherent nature of graphic design and those of gestalt psychology. Although reference will be made to other learning theories, particularly behaviourism, this article will proceed into a discussion on how the pursuit of a gestaltist stance has had implications upon the learning experiences of a range of Higher National Diploma / Foundation Degree learners. The article concludes with a summary of its observations and a consideration of this upon future practical and theoretical practice within graphic design education.

JADE 27.1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd

This was forged through a belief that treating component formal elements in isolation would maximise clarity and aid memory retention. if graphic design is a subject that requires an understanding of how to unify and interrelate formal elements within a context – which learning theory best supports the teaching and learning of this for Higher Education learners? Formal elements and the restrictions of behaviourism My own first experience of teaching the formal elements – (although at the time I was unaware) – was through behaviourist theories. I have extended Schön’s theory to include a more holistic overview. JADE 27. This emphasis on transferable skills is particularly relevant on a Higher National Diploma / Foundation Degree course in which extensive coursework demands. The essence of graphic design As a member of the visual arts. An ultimate aim being that of transferring skills and knowledge learnt to solve problems of a similar nature. That is. It is at the production level – the how – that the visual manipulation of the formal elements is applied for context. where and when graphic design is communicated to its intended audience. cognitive reflection whilst a task is in process. although this may well come later.1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. through and from practical or theoretical application. such as to achieve vocational integration. As such. require a keen emphasis on self-initiation in order to succeed. Shape. reflection whilst a task is in process. But. Graphic design requires an audience. the formal elements could be defined as Point and Line. graphic design shares many of the same concerns that affect other art and design specialisms.’ It is within this context of heightened consciousness and considered reflection that I wish to define learning by. • Through. That is. Texture. through and from as such: • By relating to reflection-in-action – that is. to the students – not to mention myself – that they were learning. but simultaneously looking at the whole picture or overall aim or objective. teaching of the formal elements is a core and early part of all Visual Art studies (Lupton 1988). Tone and Colour. reflective considerations after the event – retrospective thought. Context can manifest itself through how. transferable skills could be described as a joining up of the dots between what could be perceived as disperse concepts. through and from experience is not a measurable shift in physical output. I have defined the by. although again relating to reflectionin-action. lessons or projects. It was felt that a clear increase in measurable output justified and quantified. Therefore. Experience can be achieved by. Many teachers in the department in which I was at that time working advocated this as a sensible and tried methodology of achieving and generating output. These formal principles are believed to underline and unite all the specialised disciplines of Art and Design. This is especially pertinent within the highly pressurised environment of achievement and retention. when compared to other visual arts. during and after the commencement of a course of study. Space. learning by. experience itself does not necessarily result in learning as explained by Gibbs (1988. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten or its learning potential lost. or a combination of the two. 9): ‘It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. academic awareness and personal development skills.6 Ian Jackson Learning and experience Experience can be conscious or unconscious. through and from experience using Schön (1983) as my guide. A distinct attribute of graphic design. Experience can also relate to relevant practical or theoretical achievements obtained before. but is an internal shift in cognitive processes. Put colloquially. after a task or an overall objective has been completed. Categorised at the Bauhaus School in 1920s Germany. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd . These concerns are known as the formal elements. • From relating to reflection-on-action as opposed to reflection-in-action. Therefore. is that of context. To successfully communicate with that audience a message must be applied within an appropriate context.

on a course striving for higher-level skills and knowledge this fulfils only technical and factual knowledge and ignores conceptual cognitive concerns. It is clear to me now that students were learning by experience (whilst a task was in process). remembering and thinking’. which is praised during the insular exercises. and learning from experience (the completed task. critiques were primarily teacher centred and teacher dependent. However. through the relationships and interplay of typographic characters. was reflected in the quality of student outcome and their inability to apply or transfer these skills beyond the confines of that learnt situation. A reference to context would have broadened the learner’s scope away from task-only completion. But because of this disposition to the ‘law of effect’. This. This observation is not to detract from the importance of motor skill learning – indeed the precise. and a corporate identity for a multinational company. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd . quantity had not converted itself into quality. I would argue that without effective use of reflection-in-action or reflection-on-action to aid cognitive growth. in fact. be inappropriate for briefs of a contextual nature.1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. Both of these are contextually very different – one being local and the other global. At specific time. This was partly because the formal elements were new to many of the students. linear and devoid of appropriate context. may. This is particularly concerning for a course that encourages an increased independence of thought and working processes.or quantitydriven points another formal element would be explored. So work. Behavourism: a summary of limitations As an applied learning theory behaviourism has 65 Ian Jackson JADE 27. The exercises were set to achieve goals and were sequential. This approach lacked a distinct characteristic of graphic design studies. contextual analysis of output. The predominant ‘learned capability’ that students were using was that of motor skills learning. This was perplexing for both the students and myself. after the event). When these skills were transferred it is notable that they were applied by students who had previous industrial or higher educational experience. This was at the detriment of the cognitive strategies that Gagne (Gagne et al. considered and appropriate. Instead feedback in critiques was continually reinforced by myself rather than being a discursive and inclusive learning environment. I believe. a skill they need to internalise before entering the pressurised arena of employment. I believe. The emphasis was upon minor details and not on whole situations. but not the skills most needed to apply a range of formal elements successfully across the course. The outcomes aesthetically had much similarity to those that were praised in the exercises. task specific viewpoint. learning. inclusive and wider structural view of the problem as well as a micro. is because students had become accustomed to what Thorndike (1913) termed ‘The law of effect’. Briefs that followed the exercises included designing a poster to advertise evening courses at the college. such as tone. 1988. contextual outcomes tended to be technical and mechanical rather than dynamic. This was because students were not encouraged to reflect upon their own actions and experiences. 67) emphasised as ‘internal process by which learners select and modify their ways of attending. The law of effect is that an act which results in a particular experience (in this case praise or criticism) will generally become associated with that situation. But primarily this was because without a context to compare and contrast the merits of their output. This. However. Students were therefore effective in learning skills. either individually. or in relation to the previous formal element. However. smooth and accurately timed execution of performances is essential in a visual subject. I had followed a trial-and-error approach in which I had encouraged students to produce a large quantity of output. This was at the expense of a holistic. Even for these students application was generally devoid of any creative flair or deeper understanding. I would also propose that students were almost certainly not engaging with learning through experience. systematic.The exercises I adopted involved students exploring a particular formal element. That is learning which involves a macro. student learning was minimal and not indicative of higher cognitive processes. This created a series of building blocks.

It is this manipulation of perceptual qualities as identified by Koffka (1999) as closure. continuity.1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. behaviourism. the coherent whole will have a greater meaning than the sum of the parts. The main limitations of behaviourism when applied to Higher National students are summarised below: • Behaviourism does not allow for learning through experience. size or direction)’ (Pipes 2003. I have defined learning through experience as a kind of reflection-in-action whilst a task is in process. that of a reflected-upon experience and change in cognitive patterns. Indeed.’ Graphic design and gestalt: learning through experience To ensure the formal elements are not just understood. similarity and proximity that influences the visual manifestation of formal elements. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd . This isolated and scientific approach to formal elements did not allow for transferable skills. • Although behaviourism does produce learning by and from experience. These links were first identified when a representative of gestalt psychology lectured at the Bauhaus School of Art and Design: ‘One of the reasons Bauhaus designers and artists embraced gestalt theory is that it seemed to provide a scientific validation of age-old principles of compositions’ (Pipes 2003. Gestalt psychology proposes that the brain is holistic with self-organising tendencies. it is tacit (Smith 2003) rather than reflective and conscious. gestalt. 182). this experience is insufficient. This satisfies the human brain’s need to find. behaviourism arguably failed in providing learning by and from experience within a meaningful individualised cognitive structure. thinking and learning. All the elements must work together – if they appear separate and incongruous. gestalt is concerned primarily ‘with the significance of organized forms and patterns in human perception. 18). Although providing short-term gain. form or shape. looking at the whole picture or overall JADE 27. 183). Due to these supposed innate abilities. This in turn reduces the capability of transferring skills into similar or related ‘real world’ contextual briefs. • Learning is sequential and mechanical rather than interrelated and dynamic. As such. Although the individual elements may contain some meaning. relatively and discriminately. or impose. through and from experience within the subject specialism of graphic design. but learning within a wider holistic context or structural overview. by my own definition of experience. as such. failed the learners in the longer term. offers more dynamic opportunities for graphic design education. shapes or forms into a coherent. from the German word for whole. This reflects the gestalt mantra that the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts. but to disconnect by others (distance or differences of shape. for example). organised whole. learning that does not take place in isolation. there are links between the perceptual qualities of gestalt and the aesthetic and compositional concerns of art and design. • Behaviourism offers limited capabilities for outcomes of learning – most notably that of cognitive strategies.66 Ian Jackson limitations for supporting adult learners by. Graphic design and gestalt: aesthetics and perception Whilst behaviourism could be described as sequential and mechanical. meaning to situations. Understanding the perception of relationships within organized entities is of the very essence of learning. Yet behavourism does offer opportunities for developing and improving students’ motor skills. If any learning does take place. context and learning through experience. and therefore of composition. in varying degrees. a dexterous approach to problem solving is required. but can be applied flexibly. ‘in compositions as intricate as painting [and graphic design]. For Curzon (1985. This reduces the opportunities for converting learnt skills and knowledge into understanding. the composition will fall apart. That is. the brain is capable of organising and structuring individual elements. This is essential for the interrelating complexities of graphic design. parts may be purposely made to connect by one grouping tendency (similarity of colour.

is continued across all stages of the production process. achieved by and through experience. analysed and deconstructed the content of the brief. reorientation. as opposed to me. This stage of productive thinking is defined as ‘preparation’ by Wallas (1926) in which a learner explores the problem and defines it. thinking begins at the earliest stages of a project’s conception and is constantly revisited throughout the process of doing. through and from experience. typographic? Which formal elements are needed to achieve this? How will formal elements interrelate as so each of them is consistent in its efficiency and quality of communication? And. Therefore a student rather than studying formal elements in isolation would look at the inter-relationships of the formal elements (the facts) in consideration to the context (overall aim or objective). It is the context of that tone in relation to that line. shape. improve the quality of students’ ability to learn by. in which the student constructively considers the outcome after the overall objective has been completed. which enables the subject to view the given situation in a new and more penetrating perspective. or through discursive group feedback. Gestalt. 52): ‘The teacher should aim to elicit productive thinking based on the perception of phenomena as integrated wholes. The challenges of gestalt Using gestaltist theories in applied teaching and learning situations can. groups or individually? Could it be an animation. in relation to that overarching problem. To ensure productive thinking at the beginning of a project students were encouraged to participate in a critique in which they. that affects the appropriation and effectiveness of it. will you need to interview or survey? Will you need to work in pairs. allowed the scope and opportunity to 67 Ian Jackson JADE 27. This transfer of external stimuli into internal process contributes to an informed understanding and a growing awareness of the structure of the problem. colour is used because? The effect of this tone reduces the quality of that line because? Suddenly a series of questions is evoked in the student’s mind that challenges their original thoughts and preconceptions.1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. Students. I believe. or the whole problem. It is this relational thinking (Koffka 1999) that underpins cognitive thought and learning through experience. This would often take the form of a series of questions devised by the students to ask other students. This designer did that because? This line. students are then free to research this problem within the contemporary and historical breadth of graphic design. With this. tone. in the light of this theory. 169). These could include who is the brief for? Who is the client? Who or where is the market? Where will you need research. This cyclical process of learning. This process culminates in reflection-on-action or learning from experience. This then allows for a kaleidoscope of creative opportunities and depth of thought: ‘A reasonable reorganization. Research. Productive thinking as opposed to uncritical application Rather than allowing students to pursue a trial and error approach to problem solving – learning by doing – I decided to try to see if the students were able to solve problems more effectively through learning by thinking. Or. photographic. as described by Curzon (1985. This can be achieved through sketchbook annotation. production and realisation are all underpinned by a continual reflective process which examines the interrelationships which constitute the completed whole. as opposed to behaviourism. illustration. The teacher’s task is.’ It is this notion of productive (or creative) thinking as opposed to uncritical application of behaviourism that I feel can be of significant benefit to students’ professional and personal development. the arrangement of the conditions of learning so that perception of this nature is facilitated. It is this factor that leads to or constitutes a discovery in a deeper sense’ (Wertheimer 1966.aim or objective. through particular stages of the research. student diary or logs. at this moment how do you envisage your final design to be visualised? By deconstructing the structure of the brief and revealing parts of. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd . are then made to consider the effectiveness of their research and how this may be linked to the next stage of the discovery.

has a natural affinity to the interrelating concerns of unifying formal elements with context. ‘The learning environment has to encourage interactions between learners in which action and reflection are carefully counter-balanced’ (Danvers 2003. Materials may be produced by the lecturer to ensure that adequate reflection takes place at key points in a project’s development. Again. However. is by no means a uniform success. This is particularly so for students whose previous educational experiences emphasised the value of trial-and-error or step-by-step learning. This can sit uneasily with students’ own notion of an educational experience that is measurable. Learning how to restructure and reorganise a multiple of facts or uncertainties can be problematic. problem solving and context.1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. It can also be difficult in ensuring that students are reflecting upon their learning. However. John Danvers (2003. offers real opportunities and possibilities for learning by. JADE 27. gestalt is for many students an aim rather than prerequisite. 52) Graphic Design is a visual. coupled with a longer-term perspective is required. gestalt theory does not necessarily improve students’ verbal information skills (Gagne et al. learning by. Rote learning has much strength for learning definitions of facts. other students remarked on how the quality of their output was of a more complete and sophisticated visual and conceptual literacy. Written evaluations form part of this process. revision and even redefinition within art and design leads to an inherent instability that is seen as positive.6 Ian Jackson explore a more holistic and interrelated. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd . Gestalt is cognitive. through and from experiences through linking the visual evidence with the mental thoughts. Critiques are another important area for learning in Art and Design departments. and therefore not generally observable. It is finding this balance between learning facts and accepting that those facts are often dependent on their context where a balance between behaviourism and gestalt may lie. and then to ensure the student is aware of these thoughts. Patience. This is due to the implicit problems and challenges of applied gestalt. I will explore and expand upon these practical problems in this section. Concerns about quantity of output were particularly prevalent amongst students who progressed from more didactic learning experiences at their previous educational institutions. contextualised learning experience. with its emphasis on cognitive structure. creative but in production a technical subject. patience. As such. This is of immense benefit to learners’ professional and personal development whilst on the course but also for future employment opportunities.’ To enable cognitive shifts to be successful. However. Changes in cognitive structures can be a slow. However. Conclusion and implications for future practice I argue that pursuing a gestaltist approach has valuable implications on the quality of thought that students can apply to a range of contextual or ‘real world’ projects. Gestalt. dynamic and productive . However. Although output was a concern particularly for students who equated a parallel relationship between increasing output and quality. However. both for student and lecturer. Gestalt. 1988). 54) defined this instability as an inherent quality of struggling to problem solve and innovate within design practice: ‘Compared to many other subjects the constant process of critical interrogation. A visual manifestation of thoughts must be realised and it is here that behaviourism can take a critical role. through and from experience. there is an emphasis on the lecturer to extract through higher-order questioning students reflective thoughts. This can be a painful experience. It is because of this that it is important that the motor skills of students are not ignored. perseverance and confidence must be instigated by the senior lecturer not just to the students and the staff but also to heads of department and faculty who unless sympathetic may wish to see more immediate visual responses. applying these facts dynamically and contextually is where a higher level of thought is required. The complexities of cognitive restructuring are unnecessary for facts or absolutes. when applied with constructive reflection. I have found that students’ written abil- ities can impair reflection and support must be provided for this.

1 (2008) © 2008 The Author. London: Further Education Unit Koffka. G. International Journal of Art & Design Education. New York: Basic Books Smith. D. W. R. Vol. (2003) Foundations of Art and Design. & Wager. Journal compilation © 2008 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd . through and from experience. (1926) The Art of Thought. A. Available from URL: www. J. New York: Holt. M.infed. It will not within itself provide the creative and dynamic cognitive process. (1988) Principles of Instructional Design. M. (1988) Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Thorndike. B. J. G. I believe gestalt is an effective tool for learning by. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education (online): Available from URL: www. London: Routledge Lupton. London: Harcourt Wertheimer. pp. 1. K. (1966) Productive Thinking.html (accessed 21 February 2006) Pipes. Rinehart & Winston Danvers. (1988) Writing lessons: modern design theory. No. L. Briggs. (2003) Michael Polanyi and tacit knowledge. E. Unpublished paper for City University of New York Graduate Center (online). London: Tavistock 69 Ian Jackson References Curzon. (1913) Educational Psychology: The Psychology of Learning. E. Despite its difficulties in application – as well as being sensitive to the inherent concerns of graphic design. 22. London: Holt. (2003) Towards a radical pedagogy: provisional notes on learning and teaching in Art & Design.this role will only provide the facts and procedures of production and the final technical output. Rinehart & Winston London: Laurence King Schön. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. 47–57 Gagne. (1999) Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Teachers College Press L. K. M.designwritingresearch ..htm (accessed 2 April 2006) JADE 27. (1985) Teaching in Further Education: An Outline of Principles and Practice. A.

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