The term ‘gestalt’ was coined by German psychologists in the 1920’s to define a unified whole. It refers to theories of visual perception and organization—how our minds interpret abstract or symbolic images in the context of what surrounds them.
Gestalt has been the foundation for further research into human perception of patterns and objects and for examining human behavior, thought, problem-solving and psychopathology.
The FIGURE/GROUND principle explores how the eye differentiates an object from its background. Many optical illusions play on this relationship. The smaller shape is naturally perceived as an object (figure), with the surrounding area perceived as (back)ground.
Faces or a pedestal? Relative size can change perception.
We also tend to see an area that is surrounded as figure. To read the word ‘TIE’ in the image below, we have to switch to seeing the black area as ground.
Another tendency is to see symmetrical areas as figures against asymmetrical backgrounds. Unusual figure/ground relationships can add interest to an image and invite the viewer to engage with it.
CLOSURE is another fundamental principle of perception introduced by Gestalt psychologists. When we see an object that’s incomplete, we unconsciously want to complete it. If enough of the shape is present, we mentally fill in the missing information to make it whole. We create imaginary lines (vectors) and shapes (counter forms) to mentally finish the unfinished form.
In the above image there are no triangles or circles, though our minds fill in the missing information to create these familiar shapes. Gaps in a design can create tension, compelling the viewer to interact with the image and mentally close the gap.
A closed shape is complete, passive and static. An open shape is dynamic and invites our involvement.
We are pattern-seeking beings, which contributes to our very survival, allowing us to recognize danger from just a fragment of the whole picture. The mind makes meaning from incomplete data, filling in the gaps with stories and assumptions based on our personal experience and worldview. Closure occurs not only in the realm of visual perception, of course, but in the stories and assumptions we concoct elsewhere in life to fill in information gaps.
FIGURE/GROUND and CLOSURE are just two of the six principles of perception associated with gestalt theory. Others are similarity, continuation, proximity, and symmetry. See Proximity: Why It Matters and watch for future posts on this topic.