Skip to Content

What Are Gestalt Principles in Art and Design (With Examples)

Gestalt Principles in Art

In this post we go over the Gestalt principles of design with examples of each principle. The gestalt theory in art aids in creating visually pleasing designs and art works. By better understanding these principles, you can integrate these principles into your own art or designs.

The gestalt principles in design and art are a set of six principles which include closure, similarity, proximity, continuation, symmetry/order (prägnanz), and figure/ground. Others principles such as emergence, common region, focal point, invariance, and past experiences have been added more recently. When you instinctively find a design or piece of art good or aesthetically pleasing there are likely gestalt principles at play.

You’ve likely seen several of these principles at work in art before and couldn’t quite put your finger on why such designs were so compelling or interesting to look at.

So lets get into some key points on the Gestalt principles as well as defining each principle with examples

Check out our other principles of art:

Gestalt Principles – Key Takeaways

  • At its core, the Gestalt theory posits that the human brain intrinsically strives to perceive order from chaos by transforming complex scenarios into organized, complete systems.
  • Based on the Gestalt theory of psychology, it focuses on the whole rather than its parts
    The primary gestalt principles widely used in the creative fields like art and design are figure and ground, similarity, proximity, and closure.
    • (other principles are more popular UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) and heavily used in website or application design)
  • Specifically for art, gestalt principles work very well with human faces and figures since our brains are biologically programmed to easily recognize them
  • Lastly, these principles serve as guidelines rather than strict rules – they also can overlap with one another in terms of theory and application

What is the Basic Idea of Gestalt theory?

Again, the Gestalt theory gravitates towards the premise that humans inherently desire to perceive their world as a coherent and organized whole. This cognitive inclination seizes the variety of visual cues surrounding us daily, discerning patterns and transforming scattered stimuli into an organized, unified entity. The consequent perception thus proves to be a cohesive balance of individual parts that are far more meaningful collectively than in isolation.

It states that perception isn’t just about receiving individual sensory signals. Instead, focuses on the mind’s ability to sift through these signals quickly and efficiently organizing them into patterns and relationships to reach meaning and structure.

The German word ‘Gestalt’ can translate to ‘form’, ‘pattern’, or ‘whole’, reinforcing this concept of coherence rising from chaos.

As an example, think about how easily we identify faces in crowd. Various features like eyes, nose, mouth are strung together instinctively by our brains, allowing us to recognize a familiar face.

Gestalt Theory in Art (6 Principles with Examples)

Gestalt theory’s application isn’t confined to psychology. It extends heavily intoart and design, where its principles creatively govern visual perception. Here are the 6 common gestalt principles:

  1. Proximity/Grouping: Elements close to each other are perceived as a single group. For example, menu items on a website are seen as one unit because they are near each other.
  2. Figure/Ground: Our vision separates objects from their background. A logo on a solid background, for example, stands out as the figure against the ground.
  3. Continuity: Our eyes follow paths and see separate elements aligned in a direction as a continuous line. A row of dots forming a curve is perceived as one fluid line.
  4. Closure: We perceive incomplete shapes as complete. The WWF panda logo, though simplistic, is recognized as a complete panda by our minds.
  5. Similarity: Similar looking elements are perceived as part of the same group. Identical red balloons are seen as a cluster rather than individual balloons.
  6. Symmetry/Order: We are inclined towards symmetrical and orderly arrangements, finding them more cohesive and calming. The balance in symmetrical artworks or architecture aids in easy comprehension.

1. Proximity/Grouping

First let’s look at Proximity/Grouping further, it hones in on how our brains are inclined to link elements positioned closer together, viewing them as a cohesive cluster.

In the example above, we see the dots on the left as one group since they are space closely together; while we see the dots on the right as two groups since they are spaced apart.

The rule of proximity also outweighs both color similarity or differences in shape or color. For example, even though the dots are different colors in the above image, we still see them as part of the same group due to how close they are to each other.

2. Figure/Ground (Multistability)

The principle of Figure/Ground is actually quite common. An example of this is when your eyes can perceive two different images from one single image based on whether you focus on parts of the foreground (figure) or background (ground).

Probably one of the most common examples of this principle is “The Ruben Vase” shown above where you can see a vase (foreground) if you focus on the purple outline or two faces (background) if focusing on the tan outlines.

This principle is also sometimes defined also as “Multistability” which again simple means that there are multiple different complete images that our brain can latch onto based off one single design.

3. Continuity (Common Fate)

The Gestalt principle of Continuity describes our propensity to understand individual elements if they flow or align in a certain direction as a singular, continuous form rather than distinct parts.

For instance, consider a series of dots arranged along a curvature. Even though the elements are separate dots (and different colors), your brain naturally interprets it as one fluid, connected curve.

Likewise, Gustav Klimt’s painting ‘The Tree of Life’ provides a visualization of the continuity principle. Although composed of separate spirals, circles, and lines, the eye follows the continuous flow of the branches, interpreting them as intertwined paths, thereby creating a perception of unity and fluency in his piece.

4. Closure

Moving on to Closure, another essential Gestalt principle, this one deals with our cognitive tendency to perceive a unified whole set even when it is actually irregular or incomplete.

In the image above our mind perceives a carrot being held by the bunny even though it is not fully outlined. This principle is pretty common in different brand logos as well as abstract pieces of art.

This principle is also quite common in abstract pieces of art. For example, in a drip painting by Jackson Pollock. Our eyes may be looking for recognizable patterns and seek hints of imagery among the chaos.

5. Similarity

Next, we have the theory of Similarity. It argues that elements appearing alike—be it in size, color, or shape—hold a higher probability of being perceived as related or part of the same group.

By implementing this principle, artists intellectually instigate viewers to find connections where they might not naturally occur. Similarly, using similarity in design could dictate how users navigate their way around a website or understand content hierarchy. In terms of User Experience (UX) or User Interface (UI) , underlined, blue text throughout a webpage signals similarity and conditions viewers to understand these are clickable links.

6. Symmetry/Order (Prägnanz)

The Gestalt principle of Symmetry/Order dictates that our mind is prone to perceive objects as symmetrical and in a specific order, contributing to a sense of visual calm and cohesiveness.

Symmetry helps our brain immediately make sense of a specific design or artwork. Plus they can be very pleasing to the eye.

Whether it be architecture, film, or artwork, our eyes like symmetry and order. Symmetrical structures or artworks are far easier to understand because our brain can intuitively process the recurring pattern. In the below artwork our mind immediately recognizes symmetry, and that the focus should be placed upon Plate and Aristotle in the center.

The School of Athens by Raphael

However, too much symmetry can also lead to a pitfall of predictability and monotony. Therefore, artists and designers often introduce minor disruptions in the symmetry (asymmetry, to be precise) to add a dash of intrigue and dynamism. So, the key here is achieving a fine balance between the predictable symmetry that pleases the brain, and surprising asymmetry that challenges and engages it.

Other Gestalt Principles to Be Aware of:

7. Emergence

An overarching principle of the Gestalt theory is that brains can make sense of complex designs by perceiving the whole before recognizing individual parts. It’s like your brain sees the forest before it identifies the trees.

The focus is on the overall shape and final outcome rather than the elements that combine to form these designs.

Some common examples of this principle is when a combination of images or objects are specifically placed to make up a larger design. See the below logo from Ocean Conservancy for instance. Designs of sea creatures are specifically placed to make up the letter “O”:

Emergence goes beyond just pattern identification; it suggests that a comprehensive design is upheld beyond just merging individual elements. It’s about enabling nuanced alterations, similarities, and differences. In essence, it’s about making a design something more than just an assembly of its parts.

8. Common Region

Another principle that builds off of the Proximity/Grouping principle is that of “Common Region”. This principle is commonly seen in website design.

While proximity or closeness of certain object will always be a key factor, the Common Region principle goes further by stating that elements are perceived as part of a group if they are in within a clearly defined boundary.

Within the digital realm and specifically website design, think about how menus or sidebars function. The objects or options within these defined areas are naturally perceived as being grouped together, providing structure and order to a page.

9. Invariance

Here we have the another overarching Gestalt principle – Invariance which asserts that objects can be recognized irrespective of their orientation, position, and scale in relation to other elements. Simply put, our brains recognize an object’s identity even if it undergoes transformations in its display.

A relevant analogy to illustrate invariance is recognizing the letter ‘A’, no matter its font style, orientation, size, or color. You would still identify it as ‘A’, thanks to the principle of invariance at work.

In the realm of art and design, this principle is deemed vital. Artists and designers use it to their advantage while creating masterpieces that must retain their identity in various contexts. For instance, designing a logo that can be recognized, whether it’s on a business card or a gigantic billboard, regardless of its size or its orientation, showcases the principle of invariance in action.

10. Focal Point

The principle of Focal Point in Gestalt theory expands on other principles like symmetry and similarity. It refers to the element within a design that draws the most attention.

For an example we can look at Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. The pearl earring is placed just off center and was painted with bright and luminous white against the black background.

Making something the focal point can be achieved through contrast, color, size, or placement. The focal point acts as an anchor or a starting point for the viewer’s journey through the artwork or design. It’s where the eye is naturally drawn first, before exploring the rest of the design.

11. Uniform Connectedness

Expanding upon proximity, common region, and similarity is Uniform Connectedness

It is the principle that elements connected to each other by uniform visual properties, such as color, shape, or texture, are perceived as a single group or unit.

The suggests that visual connections can override physical separation, making disparate elements appear more cohesive.

For example, in a graphic design, elements like buttons or icons with the same color and style are perceived as related or part of a functional group, even if they are physically apart. This principle is key in creating a sense of order and organization in both art and design.

12. Parallelism

Parallelism refers to the alignment of elements in a way that suggests a relationship between them, based on their orientation.

When elements are aligned in parallel, our brains perceive them as part of a larger pattern or structure whether this be lines, words, images, or buttons. In artworks parallelism can be used to create a sense of harmony and balance, guiding the viewer through the design in a seamless, intuitive manner.

13. Past Experiences

The principle of Past Experiences in Gestalt theory emphasizes that our perception is heavily influenced by our previous experiences and cultural background.

Universal symbols that we have past experience with can influence how we interpret a design.

Here are some universal symbols that we are frequently exposed to in the United States:

This principle acknowledges that individuals bring their own unique interpretations to a design or artwork, based on their memories, experiences, and cultural context. For example, a certain color or symbol might have specific connotations for someone from a particular cultural background, influencing how they perceive a design. This principle highlights the subjective nature of perception and underscores the importance of considering the diverse backgrounds of an audience in design and art.

Gestalt Principles in UX/UI Design

Gestalt principles have an indisputable stronghold in the realm of UX/UI (User Experience/User Interface) Design. They govern how user interface designers construct an intuitive and seamless user experience. They allow designers to anticipate how users interpret visual elements, helping them build interfaces that feel natural and effortless to use.

Here are some examples of Gestalt Principles commonly found in UX/UI design:

  1. Proximity: This principle states that objects close to each other are perceived as related or grouped. In UI design, this is used to organize information. For example, form inputs for address details are grouped together, signaling to the user that they are all part of the same category of information.
  2. Similarity: Elements that look similar are perceived as part of a group. This is often used in navigation menus where similar font, color, and size are used for all menu items, indicating they are all navigational links.
  3. Continuity: This principle suggests that elements arranged on a line or curve are perceived as more related than elements not on the line or curve. In UI design, this can be seen in the way lists, menus, or even steps in a process (like a checkout process) are displayed in a linear fashion, guiding the user’s eye in a logical flow.
  4. Closure: Our minds tend to fill in missing information to create a complete, recognizable pattern. In UI design, icons or logos might be partially obscured or minimalistic, yet users can still recognize them based on their familiar shape or design.
  5. Figure-Ground: This principle involves the perception of elements as either being in the foreground or the background. A common use in UI design is the use of modal windows or pop-ups that appear over the main content, clearly indicating that they are the focus (figure), while the content behind is less important at the moment (ground).
  6. Symmetry and Order: Symmetrical designs are perceived as harmonious and orderly. This is often used in layouts to create a sense of balance and stability. For example, a dashboard might have symmetrical columns for easy comparison of information.
  7. Focal Point: Elements that stand out visually will capture attention. In UX/UI design, this could be a call-to-action button in a contrasting color, drawing the user’s attention and prompting them to take an action, like “Sign Up” or “Learn More.”

Utilization of the Gestalt principle of closure streamlines design and enhances user experience. For instance, in a restaurant app, instead of displaying the very detailed picture of a dish, a simple icon that includes aspects of the dish is provided. Users mentally fill in the details and recognize the dish, an illustration of mental closure, making the user interface simpler and more attractive. Remember that the science of perception when leveraged effectively gives birth to revolutionary designs that could enrich user experiences, taking it to a whole new level.

Why Are Gestalt Principles So Common in Logos or Designs?

The prevalence of Gestalt Principles in logos and designs is attributed to their efficiency in creating visually pleasing, harmonious compositions that are easy to understand and memorable. These principles bring an extra layer of depth and meaning to a design while maintaining simplicity.

Check the hidden “arrow” in the FedEx logo

In the field of branding and logo design, the principle of closure is a popular technique used by designers. It allows them to create minimalist designs that evoke intrigue and engage customers. An example is the World Wildlife Fund logo, where our minds fill the gaps of the incomplete panda image, making the design impactful and memorable.

A similar principle often leveraged is the law of similarity and proximity. By grouping similar elements together or placing elements close to each other, designers can generate visual connections that bring a sense of order and efficiency to a design. FedEx logo is an exemplar of this principle – the hidden arrow between the ‘E’ and the ‘x’ implicitly communicates speed and precision, essential traits of their courier service.

Who Are Some Famous Gestalt Artists?

M. C. Escher, Day and Night.

The Gestalt philosophy has significantly influenced a plethora of artists throughout the centuries. One such artist renowned for embracing the Gestalt approach is M.C Escher. Known for his enigmatic and thought-provoking works, Escher ingeniously experimented with the Gestalt concepts of figure and ground, exploiting our innate tendency to separate the foreground from the background.

Here’s a list of some other popular artists who are recognized for their use of Gestalt principles:

  1. Piet Mondrian: A prominent contributor to the De Stijl art movement, Mondrian’s abstract works, especially his grid-based paintings, are prime examples of the use of symmetry, order, and simplicity.
  2. Andy Warhol: A leading figure in the visual art movement known as Pop Art, Warhol’s works often played with the principles of similarity and repetition to create striking, iconic images.
  3. Victor Vasarely: Known as the father of Op Art, Vasarely’s works used contrasting colors and geometric shapes to create optical illusions, demonstrating principles like figure-ground and continuity.
  4. Bridget Riley: Another key figure in the Op Art movement, Riley’s paintings explore the dynamic effects of optical phenomena and often use Gestalt principles like continuity and closure to create a sense of movement.
  5. Josef Albers: Famous for his work on color theory and as a Bauhaus instructor, Albers’ “Homage to the Square” series is a study in color interaction and relies on the Gestalt principles of proximity and similarity.
  6. Salvador Dalí: A surrealist artist known for his striking and bizarre images, Dalí’s work often incorporated principles like closure and figure-ground to challenge viewers’ perceptions of reality.
  7. Wassily Kandinsky: Often credited as the pioneer of abstract art, Kandinsky’s compositions make use of balance, contrast, and symmetry, effectively applying Gestalt principles to evoke emotion through abstract forms.
  8. Jan van Eyck: A Flemish painter of the Early Renaissance, van Eyck’s detailed panel paintings demonstrate an advanced understanding of the figure-ground relationship, particularly in his use of depth and detailed backgrounds.
  9. René Magritte: A Belgian surrealist artist, Magritte’s works often play with reality and illusion, effectively using principles like similarity and closure to create thought-provoking images.
artworks by Salvador Dali

Brief History of Gestalt Theory and Psychology

The term Gestalt originated in Germany and translates directly to “form” or “shape”. However, in the context of psychology and design, it is often understood as a coherent whole, ‘greater than the sum of its parts‘.

Max Wertheimer

This theory’s birth can be traced back to the early 20th century when German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka laid its foundation. They asserted our innate tendency to perceive patterns and order in the sensory data we encounter, resulting in a preference for grouping separate elements into a unified whole.

Interestingly, the birth of Gestalt psychology was prompted by an observation Wertheimer made when he noticed peculiar light movement on a railroad trip, later termed the Phi phenomenon. This insight became the cornerstone for further developments in Gestalt psychology, which essentially revolved around understanding human perception.

Gestalt psychology became increasingly popular in the succeeding years, offering a unique perspective on perception and cognition differing from the then-dominant structuralist viewpoint. Despite turbulent times marked by World War II and the subsequent migration of many Gestalt psychologists, the principles they formulated continue to resonate with artists, designers, and psychologists, influencing their work profoundly.

Related Frequently Asked Questions

What Does Gestalt Principle Explain?

The Gestalt principles describe the ways in which our cognitive faculties perceive, interpret, and contextualize the visual imageries scattered around our lives.

The gestalt principles in design and art are a set of six principles which include closure, similarity, proximity, continuation, symmetry/order (prägnanz), and figure/ground. Others principles such as emergence, common region, focal point, invariance, and past experiences have been added more recently. When you instinctively find a design or piece of art good or aesthetically pleasing there are likely gestalt principles at play.

Put more simply, these principles explain how our minds group or segregate elements to construct meaning and grasp our environment.

What Is Gestalt Principle of Closure in Art?

The Gestalt principle of closure entails that our cognitive processes voluntarily ‘close’ open or incomplete figures, leading to the perception of a whole even if the actual information provided to our senses is segmented or partial.

What Is Creativity in Gestalt Theory?

Creativity in Gestalt theory refers to the novel and intriguing ways that our minds piece together disparate elements to create a cohesive, meaningful whole.

Essentially, it describes the perceptual phenomenon wherein our brains instinctively seek order and organization amid chaotic, disjointed stimuli.

Should You Use a Reference Image When Drawing Based on Gestalt Principles?

Whenever striving for a level of realism you should be using reference images. Gestalt principles can aim to enhance your drawing or artwork, but reference images help you accurately capture likeness, proportion, and dimension.

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases made on our website. If you make a purchase through links from this website, we may get a small share of the sale from Amazon and other similar affiliate programs. You can read our complete legal information for more details.