Proximity: Why It Matters
An essential principle of graphic design that I appreciate more over time, is proximity. It contributes to clean, clear, reader-friendly design, and is one of the handful of Gestalt principles of visual perception and organization (developed by Austrian and German psychologists in the 1920’s). These principles explain how the eye organizes visual experiences and how the brain interprets them — especially in the context of their surroundings. We humans are pattern-seeking beings.
The Proximity principle states that objects that are close together are seen as being associated or linked with one another. The closer the objects appear, the more likely we are to perceptually group them.
SO WHAT? Artful grouping of design elements on a page, whether text or graphics, creates a bond between them, a relationship, a cohesive whole. We see a family of related objects, a visual ‘unit’ that we can mentally batch process. No sorting required. (See also Visual Hierarchy.)
In page layout, a few well-defined clusters of information communicate more clearly than content scattered to the four corners of the page. If you have a lot of verbiage, consider combining your information into two or three (maximum five) distinct clumps, allowing enough white space between the clumps to set them apart. Resist the temptation to use lines to separate elements or boxes to group them, as this just adds noise to the page. Try letting the space between the elements (proximity) tell the story of their relationships.
Some natural clumps or groupings might be:
multiple bits of contact information packaged in a cluster
a heading with the paragraph close below it
the date, time, location and RSVP information for an event
a photo or illustration with caption and/or credit
a pull quote with author’s name, affiliation and/or credentials
a logo with tagline and web (or physical) address
a business person’s name, company and title
For Western readers, who read left to right, there is an even closer association perceived between objects when they are side by side than when they are above and below each other. So placing a news story beside a photo rather than under it goes with the (visual) flow of most readers.
Once you have your clumps, use alignment (with margins or with other elements) to hold the groupings together in a balanced, integrated page layout. Squinting at your layout can tell you in an instant whether it’s unified or scattered, clear or confusing, focused or distracting. Start with a single, strong focal point whenever possible and tie the rest of your content to it for a cohesive, organized whole.