Gestalt theory: a reminder of the psychological principle that every designer should know
Recently gestalt theory (too gestaltism) has gained immense popularity, especially for designers. In fact, it seems to be a trend. However, the principles of gestalt are very useful and designers should know them.
Most authors discuss Gestalt principles in an abstract form. Others focus on print design. There are few articles on gestaltism in digital products. Although initially different, digital and printed products follow the same layout rules. The details may differ from print publications, but the ideas are still relevant.
In this article, I want to highlight the impact of gestaltism on digital design. Additionally, I want to explain how and why gestaltism works in general. I have also written an article that discusses the individual principles in detail and illustrates their application to digital design.
You can use Gestalt principles without knowing the background of Gestalt psychology. You are probably already using some of the principles in your designs. However, using gestalt principles to explain your work is much more interesting. Clients and colleagues will understand your reasoning and why your solution works. For this it is important to know not only that there is a principle, but also why and how it works.
Gestalt psychology in a nutshell
Gestalt psychologists argue that we must organize what we see in order to make sense of the world. There is an almost infinite amount of information reaching the retinas every second. Without using patterns to order it, we would overwhelm our brains.
What is Gestalt Psychology?
Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that examines the human mind and behavior as a whole. When we try to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we don’t just focus on every little component. Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as part of a larger whole and as parts of more complex systems. (Source: www.gestaltcleveland.org).
Psychologists describe this ordering process as the combination of sensations into coherent scenes. The result of this process is a perceive. A perceive is a subjectively experienced and conscious result of a perceptual process.
What is a concept?
A percept is an idea of what something looks like that you get from your senses. (Source: Cambridge English Dictionary).
The idea is that we make sense of our world by seeing it as a whole, rather than the individual parts.
The origins of Gestalt psychology
“Gestalt psychology” as a name is not clearly defined. It is used for many psychological ideas around perception. The basis for all these ideas is an article by Christian von Ehrenfels (member of the Brentano School) written in 1890. He introduced the concept of “Gestalt” in philosophy and psychology.
The Experimental Psychology Laboratory in Berlin has defined what we call Gestalt psychology. Founded in 1893, it was part of the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology. When Wolfgang Köhler took over in 1922, it became a school of Gestalt psychology. Together with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, he founded Gestalt psychology as we know it.
The name comes from the German word “Gestalt”, which means shape or form. Gestalt psychology or gestaltism describes a school of thought in psychology and focuses on our ability to find organizing principles in sensations.
The basis of Gestalt psychology is an idea that von Ehrenfels describes in his article. Perception has different qualities than the mere combination of sensory qualities. To understand this, you must first know what psychologists mean by a “quality” of a perception. A quality describes a sensation in a sensory domain such as seeing or hearing. An electromagnetic wave that strikes our retina can for example have a “red” or “blue” quality.
Kurt Koffka rephrased this as “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. (Often misquoted as “more than”.)
Imagine seeing a cat. What do you notice first? Do you perceive cat’s paws, cat’s ears, a cat’s body and a cat’s head, or do you see a cat? Max Wertheimer argued that we actually perceive the whole cat first. It is only once we have seen the cat that we can see the different parts that make it up.
Psychologists would say that “gestalt” is perceptually primary. This means that the whole defines the parts that compose it. The opposite would mean that the whole is a “secondary quality” that emerges from its parts. That would mean you see the coins first.
Because the gestalt is perceptually primary, you see a cat and then the stubby paws.
A criticism of Gestalt psychology is that it is descriptive. This means that it only describes psychological phenomena. It cannot make predictions or determine causation. Further, behavior is interpreted from a person’s experience. This is called qualitative research, which some people consider less reliable.
However, recently, some quantitative studies have supported the idea of gestalt psychology. Quantitative research focuses on large sets of data instead of intense personal questioning.
What are the principles of Gestalt?
What is Prägnanz’s law?
People will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images as the simplest form possible, because it is the interpretation that requires the least cognitive effort from us. (Source: lawofux.com).
Over time, the gestalt was refined to include the grouping principles.
The 8 Gestalt principles of grouping
- Common destiny
- Good gestalt
- Past experience
These explain how we combine the parts into a whole. An important realization is that the sum is not its parts. This means that a cat is not just a collection of all the parts that make it up. In combination, these parts form a specific cat. The one we recognize and assign a personality.