I was fortunate enough to have been the sole recipient of the 2006 Full Tuition Scholarship from the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Someone had invested +$95,000 into my art + design education when even I didn’t know what I was doing, really. To share the wealth, today you will learn about Gestalt: the Principles of Design, a Crash Course.

Gestalt, “whole form,” is simply known as the “Law of Simplicity.” Basically, it is our understanding that visual stimulus is a simplification of the sum of its parts. The world is chaos. Our nature and psychology always makes an effort to restore order and harmony in our environment from entities that appear to be disconnected pieces of information. There are six main compartments in the way that we interpret information to make “sense” of what it is that we’re seeing.

Why is this important? There are many successful brands that have used a combination of these principles to make long lasting impressions in the way we feel about them and has helped them convey their message.

The bad boys of this movement were Max Wertheimer, Kurt Kofka, and Wolfgang Kohler.

1. Figure

This first principle is our nature to separate figures from their backgrounds based on a series of visual cues that provide a separation from the overall environment. This is processed by a combination of contrast, color, size, distance, etc. The focus at any given moment is the figure. Anything that is not the figure, is ground. Ground is either the physical terrain or negative space, the background. Oftentimes it is easy to distinguish; however, there will also be ambiguity, depending on the viewer, that the figure becomes the ground and vice versa. This can be achieved through camouflage, the deliberate attempt to hide the figure’s contour from its surrounding environment.

2. Similarity

Camouflage is an excellent segway into the next principle: similarity; though not exclusive. Similarity is our brain’s interpretation of objects that share visual characteristics such as shape, color, size, value, and/or texture, must belong as a group. It is how we establish rhythm of form, but they don’t have to be identical. They may become intricate patterns, but as we step back and view them as a whole, their similarities are obvious.

3. Proximity

Proximity states that shapes or objects in a relative distance to one another appear to function as a group. Unlike similarity, they can be different from each other and perhaps also server different purposes or functions. This grouping of elements presents that the idea that they’re somehow more meaningful together than if they were viewed as separate elements. Grouping can be achieved in a number of ways that appear to establish a plane in space; tone or value, shape, color, and size are such ways.

4. Closure

“Connect the dots.” While a trite statement nowadays, is the base of what the principle of closure holds. It is our brain’s visual suggestion of the continuation between a group of elements that aren’t necessarily touching each other. We ourselves will fill in the information required to apply the satisfaction that a composition of seemingly interconnected elements are indeed functioning as a whole. Counter forms, or the negative space surrounding the active element is how we see the entire picture even if certain information is missing. Closure is the tension that holds the positive and negative together.

5. Continuation

Viewers that experience elements to continue despite their physical cues no longer existing is (good) continuation. We take clues from the general direction of an element to understand that its essence will still follow its established direction. Lines, edges, or contours with good continuation will guide our eyes in a field of vision of compositional elements to establish some type of relationship of the entire plane, or series of planes.

6. Symmetry

This principle isn’t exclusive to the idea of objects having to reflect behavior, but that an order should be in place to ease our sense of balance or feel that it is wrong. Order defines stability, structure, and reliability.

Objectively, this may be perceived as negative or positive from the viewer’s own personality. They may view it as rigid, boring, and stifling. The principle of symmetry is most applicable in utilitarian applications, such as public transit, traffic signs, and manuals.

While there are several other principles to this theory, good design is most established on a combination of the above principles. While they all have excellent faculties to shape the viewers’ perception, it isn’t necessary to employ all of them at once to develop a successful brand. What brands in the wild have you noticed that make use of the principles of Gestalt Theory? Let me know in the comments below.