Oleksandr Koshytskyi Photo
Oleksandr Koshytskyi
Design Lead
min read

The Gestalt Principles of Design: How Design Forms Visual Perception

The Gestalt principles of design, examples by Lazarev design agency.

Discover the Gestalt Principles and their impact on UX design and uncover the secrets behind creating intuitive and visually compelling digital experiences. Learn how leveraging principles such as similarity, continuation, and closure can revolutionize your design approach.

In the early 20th century, amidst the bustling innovation and cultural shifts of Germany, a simple observation at a railroad crossing would ignite a revolution in the world of psychology and design. It was 1910, and psychologist Max Wertheimer found himself mesmerized by the flashing lights before him. To any onlooker, it was a routine safety signal, but to Wertheimer, it was a puzzle. The lights, though stationary and blinking independently, sparked an illusion of motion in his mind. This moment of curiosity propelled Wertheimer, along with his german psychologists Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, down a path of exploration that would challenge the very foundations of how a human mind perceives things.

Through numerous experiments and studies they came to the conclusion that our perceptions are not merely the sum of sensory inputs but are complex, holistic interpretations shaped by intrinsic principles. This groundbreaking theory laid the cornerstone for Gestalt psychology, a movement that would transcend its psychological roots to profoundly influence design.

What are the Gestalt principles of design?

The Gestalt theory suggests that our minds have a natural inclination to organize components of a detailed image or design into a coherent form, pattern, or structure. These gestalt principles act as instinctive mental shortcuts that help us interpret and find significance in our surroundings. This inherent cognitive strategy proves invaluable for designers, enabling them to communicate information more efficiently and effectively than might otherwise be achievable.

The Principle of Invariance

The similarity principle, a cornerstone of Gestalt psychology, refers to the human ability to recognize the constancy and consistency of objects despite changes in appearance, such as alterations in size, rotation, or brightness. This principle underscores our capacity to perceive the essential qualities of an object that remain unchanged, ensuring we can identify and understand objects in our environment regardless of the angle, distance, or lighting conditions. 

Take Apple's Logo for example. Over the years, Apple’s logo has undergone several redesigns, transitioning from an intricate drawing of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree to the sleek, modern silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it. Despite these changes in design and even variations in color schemes - from rainbow stripes to monochromatic tones - the essential shape of the logo has remained constant. It showcases how designs can evolve over time while still preserving the fundamental aspects that enviable instant recognition and connection with the audience. This principle is crucial for designers and brands aiming to create lasting and adaptable visual identities that resonate with their audience across various contexts and through time. 

Also, Google's home page is a masterclass in the application of the principle of similarity. By employing a minimalist design with a uniform color scheme and consistent font style, Google creates a visual hierarchy where the search bar is prominently featured. The simplicity and similarity of elements direct user focus towards the search functionality, demonstrating how similarity can guide user behavior and enhance the usability of digital interfaces.

The Gestalt principle of invariance example

The Gestalt Principle of Continuity

The law of continuity is a fundamental concept within Gestalt psychology, which posits that our minds prefer to see continuous figures and are inclined to follow along a path, line, or curve, perceiving it as a unified whole. This law of continuity plays a crucial role in guiding the viewer's eye movement across a composition, ensuring a seamless flow of information and enhancing the overall aesthetic and functional coherence of the design.

During the design phase of Kin Ecosystem's new website, we implemented the law of continuity as our main perceptual organization practice. A prominent 3D coin featured on the main screen serves as a guide for users. With its smooth motion, the coin directs users’ attention seamlessly as they scroll through the page. Interestingly, the redesigned site for Kin saw a remarkable 120% increase in traffic.

Netflix employs the principle of continuity to enhance user experience through its seamless navigation design. When users browse Netflix, they encounter horizontally scrolling rows of movies and TV shows categorized by genre, recommendations, and viewing history. This design creates a visual flow that leads the viewer's eye from left to right, encouraging exploration and discovery within the platform.

The Gestalt principle of continuation

Amazon also makes use of the principle of continuity in the navigation design of their website. Amazon effectively employs this principle to guide users through their extensive array of products and services with a design that encourages easy and intuitive exploration. The website's layout features a horizontal navigation bar at the top, which seamlessly integrates dropdown menu items that expand to reveal subcategories, leading the user's eye in a natural, unbroken flow from one category to the next.

The Gestalt Principle of Closure

When talking about the gestalt principles, Closure is one of the coolest because it plays a trick on your brain. This principle operates on the idea that individuals have a natural inclination to fill in missing information to form a complete, recognizable pattern or object, even when all the components are not fully visible. This tendency allows for creative designs that engage viewers by inviting them to mentally complete the image, thereby creating a more memorable and impactful visual experience.

The principle of closure is often used in brand identity projects, but at Lazarev., our UI/UX designers applied it differently in a website design project for Grand Founders. First, the mind sees squares made by incomplete lines with all three graphic elements. Then, within these squares, the elements create shapes like arrows, squares, and diamonds. Even though they're not fully finished, the principle of closure helps the mind complete the figures.

One of the most compelling uses of the principle of closure is seen in the World Wildlife Fund's panda logo. The logo doesn't depict a complete panda; instead, it uses strategically placed black shapes on a white background, allowing the viewer's mind to fill in the gaps. This clever use of negative space not only makes the logo memorable but also subtly communicates the organization's message about the absence (or potential loss) of wildlife, demonstrating the powerful emotional impact of the principle of closure.

A similar example that showcases the principle of closure in action is the NBC Peacock logo. Just like World Wildlife Fund’s panda, this logo cleverly uses negative space to form the shape of a peacock, with colored segments representing the bird’s feathers. Although the peacock’s outline isn’t explicitly drawn, the arrangement of these colorful segments against a simple background enables viewers to perceive the complete form of the peacock. The logo utilized the principle of closure by relying on the viewer’s mind to fill in the gaps, creating a powerful and enduring brand symbol.

The Gestalt principle of closure

The Gestalt Principle of Proximity

This principle is predicated on the idea that elements placed near each other are perceived as a cohesive unit, influencing how we organize and interpret visual traits. Proximity can dramatically impact the visual layout by suggesting relationships between components, thereby guiding the viewer's understanding and interpretation of the design.

A clear demonstration of the principle of proximity in website design is the navigation menu we developed for Half Past Nine. By using the correct spacings, we grouped the pages into columns. This setup guides the viewer's eye to read the navigation menu vertically instead of horizontally, even though the menu has horizontal lines. 

The Gestalt principle of Proximity

Nothing highlights this principle better than the New York Subway map. Despite the dense network of routes and stations, the map utilizes proximity by grouping lines and stations in a way that makes the system appear less daunting. This organization helps commuters easily decipher their routes, proving that the principle of proximity can transform chaos into clarity.

The principle of proximity example

The Gestalt Principle of Figure/Ground

Similar to the closure principle, the figure takes advantage of the way our brain processes negative space. It describes how humans perceive and visually distinguish an object (the figure) from its surrounding area (the ground). This principle is critical for understanding how we perceive and interpret visual stimuli, as it influences our ability to focus on specific elements within a composition. It plays with our visual perception by toggling between what is considered the foreground and what is seen as the background, often leading to fascinating visual traits and a deeper engagement with the artwork or design.

To exemplify how the principle of figure works, we'd like to showcase the latest brand identity and website design for Accern. The Accern logo offers a dual visual interpretation, where you can perceive both the blue pentagons with negative space inside and a black transformer surrounded by blue pentagons. 

The overarching concept of Accern revolves around transforming content into data. The black transformer symbolizes the intermediary process through which the content passes, ultimately resulting in structured data being delivered to the user.

When looking at the FedEx logo, at first glance, it's a simple logo with the brand's name. However, a closer look reveals a hidden arrow formed between the letters 'E' and 'x', symbolizing speed and precision. This clever design detail not only enhances brand recall but also subtly communicates the essence of FedEx's services, showcasing the principle of figure/ground in creating meaningful brand messages.

The Rubin Vase illustration is also a classic in showcasing the figure/ground principle. This optical illusion presents a viewer with a visual choice: either a vase in the center or two faces looking at each other in profile, which occupy the space on either side of the vase. The Rubin Vase encapsulates the essence of the figure/ground principle by demonstrating how a single visual can be perceived in multiple ways, depending on which element—the vase (figure) or the faces (ground)—the viewer chooses to focus on.This image serves as a powerful example of how the figure/ground principle can be used to create multi-layered designs that engage viewers by encouraging them to shift their focus and perceive alternate realities within the same level.

The Gestalt principle of figure

The Gestalt Law of Symmetry

The law of symmetry and order, which is also known as pragnanz, the German word for “good figure” underscores the human tendency to perceive balanced, symmetrical forms as harmonious and pleasing. It posits that symmetrical arrangements of elements within a composition create a sense of stability and order, which is inherently attractive to the human eye. Symmetry can be found in various contexts, from nature to architecture, and plays a crucial role in graphic design by influencing how information is organized and perceived.

The Olympic logo is an iconic representation in the world of sports. It consists of five interlocking rings, representing the unity of the five inhabited continents: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Even in a monochrome setting, where the distinct colors that typically differentiate the rings are absent, the symmetry of the arrangement and the interlocking design maintain the logo's visual balance and unity.

The Gestalt law of symmetry

The Gestalt Principle of Common Fate

Even though the principle of common fate was not originally included in Gestalt psychology, it has long been added. It suggests that elements moving in the same direction are perceived as part of a single group or pattern. This principle highlights how motion or implied motion can be a powerful unifying factor in visual perception, leading observers to perceive elements as more related when they share a common trajectory or behavior. The principle of common fate is often utilized in dynamic designs and animations to create a sense of cohesion and to guide the viewer's attention through a visual narrative.

A notable example of the principle of common fate is evident in the Accern project by Lazarev. The movement of elements sharing the same trajectory despite being in different shapes creates the perception of the two blocks as a single entity. 

A well-known application of the principle of common fate can be seen in animated loading sequences on websites and applications. These sequences often feature elements such as dots, lines, or circles moving together in a synchronized manner—either spinning, pulsating, or following a path. This synchronized movement not only captures the user's attention but also visually communicates the process of loading or progress towards a goal.

The Gestalt law of common fate

For example, the spinning loading icon, a circle composed of several dots rotating in unison, leverages the principle of common fate to signify that parts of the application or website are in the process of becoming accessible. Users instinctively understand that these moving parts are related and represent a single action due to their shared movement, making the wait for content to load more intuitive and visually engaging.

The Gestalt Principle of Similarity

The principle of similarity is among the original set of visual grouping principles together with closure and proximity. It states that objects which share visual characteristics such as shape, size, color, or texture are perceived as belonging together or forming a group. This principle plays a vital role in how we organize visual elements in our perception, allowing for a more efficient and intuitive understanding of our surroundings by grouping similar items. 

Ukrainian Power, a project by our Lazarev.agency to help Ukrainian creatives during the war, shows how the principle of similarity works. 

Even though the third line of the title on the "About Us" page is red, all four lines look like the same title because they have the same shape and size.

Explore the Ukrainian Power case study!

The Gestalt principle of similarity

Despite the difference in color, the two lines are perceived as one group and read together seamlessly due to the identical shapes of the rectangles with rounded corners and the consistent font used for the text.

The Gestalt law of similarity example

Another great example of the Gestalt law of similarity can be found on the Lazarev.agency website. As you scroll through the MVP process page, you'll notice the process is segmented into different stages. The visuals and text for each stage share a specific color, aiding navigation and helping you discern which stage you're currently reading about. For instance, product strategy is highlighted in yellow, while user experience design adopts a blueish color scheme. 

Spotify is among the best, when we are talking about music streaming platforms. One of the things that make them stand out is how they design their playlists covers. Spotify utilizes a consistent graphic design template for its playlist covers, which includes a uniform font and layout structure, while varying images and color schemes to reflect the mood or genre of the playlist. This consistency in design elements across different playlists leverages the Gestalt principle of similarity, enabling users to quickly navigate and find playlists based on visual cues.

The law of similarity of Gestalt example

Despite the diversity in imagery and color, the similar design framework across playlists helps users intuitively group them by type or mood. For instance, playlists meant for relaxation or study feature soothing colors and imagery, while those designed for workouts or parties might show more dynamic and vibrant visuals. This visual similarity across categories enhances the user experience by making it easier for listeners to identify the type of content they're looking for, demonstrating the principle's effectiveness in digital user interface design.

The Gestalt Principle of Multistability

The Gestalt principle of multistability is a fascinating aspect of Gestalt psychology that describes the tendency of ambiguous images or designs to offer multiple, stable interpretations. In viewing multistable images, the human perception may switch between different interpretations, each of which is stable for a period of time. This phenomenon highlights the dynamic nature of perception and how the human mind seeks to make sense of complex or ambiguous visual stimulus by alternately adopting different viewpoints.

To better understand this principle, the Necker Cube is a perfect example. This optical illusion consists of a simple wireframe drawing of a cube that lacks cues for depth, allowing for two distinct perceptions: the cube can be seen with either its front face lower left and the back face upper right, or vice versa. The interesting aspect of the Necker Cube is that the human perception can flip between these two orientations, even though the image itself remains unchanged.

An example of the law of multistability of Gestalt

The Necker Cube illustrates how, in the absence of definitive visual information, human perception fills in the gaps, resulting in a shifting experience of the image. This multistable perception demonstrates our cognitive flexibility and the active role our minds play in constructing our visual reality. It also serves as a powerful tool for understanding how ambiguity can be intentionally used in design and art to engage and stimulate the viewer’s interpretive faculties.

The Gestalt Principle of Emergence

The principle of emergence deals with the ability of the human brain to identify simple patterns and shapes from a complex arrangement of visual elements. This Gestalt principle suggests that the whole of an object or scene is perceived first, before its individual parts, allowing for immediate recognition even in the presence of minimal or abstract information. Emergence underscores the idea that human perception can assemble a cohesive image from seemingly unrelated parts, highlighting the brain's capacity for holistic processing.

The genius of the Unilever logo lies in its ability to communicate the company's broad and diverse engagement with consumer goods through a collection of individual images that emerge together to form a recognizable letter. This graphic design cleverly leverages the Gestalt law of emergence, inviting viewers to delve deeper into the logo to discover the meaning behind each icon, thus engaging with the brand on a more profound level. The logo not only serves as a visual identifier for Unilever but also as a narrative device that encapsulates the company's ethos and areas of impact.

The Gestalt principle of emergence

Why are Gestalt principles important for business growth?

Gestalt principles among other individual elements hold significance for businesses across various aspects:

1. User Experience (UX) Design. Applying Gestalt principles in UX UI design helps create intuitive, visually appealing interfaces that enhance user satisfaction, engagement, and conversion rates.

2. Marketing and Branding: Gestalt principles influence marketing and branding strategies by guiding the design of logos, advertisements, packaging, and other visual elements. By leveraging principles such as proximity, similarity, and closure, businesses can create a memorable and impactful brand identity that resonates with their target audience and form perception of a worthy brand.

3. Product Design and Packaging: Gestalt principles significantly influence product design and packaging, helping businesses create products that are aesthetically pleasing, functional, and user-friendly. By considering factors like perceptual grouping, symmetry, and figure-ground relationships, companies can design packaging that stands out on store shelves and attract customers' attention.

4. Communication and Messaging: Gestalt principles also inform how businesses communicate and convey their messages effectively. By understanding principles such as figure-ground relationship and continuity, companies can design marketing materials, presentations, and advertisements that effectively convey their brand message and values.

5. Problem-Solving and Innovation: Gestalt principles encourage businesses to adopt a holistic approach to problem-solving and innovation. Companies can identify creative solutions and drive organizational growth by considering the whole system or process rather than focusing solely on individual elements.

Which Gestalt principle is strongest?

It's challenging to determine which Gestalt principle is the "strongest" as each principle plays a significant importance in perception and cognition, depending on the context and the specific elements involved. Designers need to understand main and other principles of Gestalt psychologists as  the strength and applicability of each principle can vary depending on the specific context and the interplay with other perceptual factors.

Conclusion, or why Gestalt principles play a significant role in UI design

The discussed and other Gestalt principles of visual design offer invaluable insights into the human cognitive process, providing a framework that helps UX designers create more intuitive, engaging, and aesthetically pleasing digital experiences. By understanding and applying principles such as similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, symmetry, and common fate, designers can guide users through digital interfaces with ease, enhancing usability and ensuring a seamless interaction with technology.

These principles are not just theoretical concepts but practical tools that can significantly impact the success of digital products. They remind us that good UX design is about more than just looks; it's about creating an experience that feels natural and intuitive to the user. Whether it's through the strategic layout of a website like Netflix or the engaging animations of a loading sequence, the application of these and other Gestalt principles can transform a user's digital journey into a delightful and memorable experience.

For businesses looking to elevate their digital presence and create interfaces that resonate deeply with their audience, embracing these timeless UI design principles is essential. Contact Lazarev. today to transform your visual communication strategies and create a user interface that truly resonates.

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