Gestalt principles of visual perception

Gestalt theory was developed by German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler in the early 20th century. The German word die Gestalt means "form" or "shape" and Gestalt theory of perception can be summarized as that people tend to perceive things as wholes rather than separate parts. It proposes "laws of organization in perceptual forms" (Wertheimer, 1938) which have been applied by various design disciplines. Basically, people perceive visual stimuli as organized or grouped patterns. Gestalt principles related to spatial design are briefly explained below.

Figure-ground relationship: As Kohler (1938) states "figure perception is represented in the optic field by differences of potential along the entire outline or border of the figure". Thus, contrast plays an important role in distinguishing figure from the ground. The most famous example that demonstrates figure-ground relationship is probably the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin’s "Rubin’s vase" (Figure 2). The figure-ground relationship is related to legibility in spatial design.


Fig. 2. Figure-ground relationship in Rubin’s vase (Baluch & Itti, 2011).

Proximity: Objects located close to each other tend to be perceived as groups. For example; the number "3012" is perceived as two different numbers when a space inserted in the middle: 3012.

Similarity: Objects that have similar visual characteristics such as color, shape, direction etc. are perceived in groups (Figure 3).


Fig. 3. Gestalt factor of similarity.

Continuation: Graham (2008) explains continuation as "continuation occurs when the eye follows along a line, curve, or a sequence of shapes, even when it crosses over negative and positive shapes" (Figure 4).

Fig. 4. Factor of continuation (Graham, 2008).

Closure: There is a tendency to close and mentally complete the missing parts of an image which is visually incomplete (Figure 5).


Fig. 5. Factor of closure (Graham, 2008).