Gestalt is a general description for the concepts that make unity and variety possible in design. It is a German word that roughly translates as "whole" or "form." Gestalt theory is involved with visual perception and the psychology of art among other things. It is concerned with the relationship between the parts and the whole of a composition.

In this section you will study five gestalt concepts:

Closure the mind supplies the missing pieces in a composition
Continuance the eye continues in the direction it is going
Similarity what an items looks like and how that effects gestalt
Proximity where items are in relationship to each other and how that effects gestalt
Alignment lining up objects to organize and form groups

The study of gestalt originated in Germany in the 1920s. It is a form of psychology that is interested in higher order cognitive processes relative to behaviorism. The aspects of gestalt theory that interests designers are related to gestalt's investigations of visual perception, principally the relationship between the parts and the whole of visual experience.

The visual world is so complex that the mind has developed strategies for coping with the confusion. The mind tries to find the simplest solution to a problem. One of the ways it does this is to form groups of items that have certain characteristics in common.

Most of what you will study about gestalt is concerned with how these groups are formed and what effect they have on perception. The stronger the grouping, the stronger the gestalt. It is this grouping that contributes to the unity in a design. Gestalt is one of the most powerful tools available to a designer for creating unity.

The same concepts that form groups can be reversed to ungroup items -- to make them look unique and stand alone. That is the basis for creating variety. Variety is what adds interest to an image.

The trick is to strike a balance between unity and variety. Too much unity and the design can look boring and repetitive; too much variety and it can look chaotic and disconnected. Understanding gestalt concepts can help a designer control unity and variety.

A complex object is really a group of simple items that the mind puts together as a single entity. A face is a collection of eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. You can recognize a familiar face even if part of it hidden (with a hat or sunglasses for instance). Your mind supplies the missing parts if enough of the significant features are visible.

A simple example of this can be seen with this series of circles. As more and more of each is removed the circle still remains identifiable until more is missing than is present. This is called closure because the mind "closes" the image by supplying the missing parts.

This works with a simple geometric shape because you need only a few clues to remind you of the shape. More complex objects require more careful consideration as to what can and cannot be removed. Some information is critical and must be included; some information is unessential and can (and perhaps should) be eliminated.

Closure is used extensively in art. It is not so much the quantity, but rather the quality of the information that lets you read an image. A clever artist leaves some things for the viewers to supply when they look at an image. It is a little like when the singer at a concert gets the audience to sing along. You feel like part of the show.

Continuance describes a device for directing the viewer's attention when looking at a composition. It is based on the idea that once you start looking in a particular direction you will continue looking in that direction until you see something significant.

A simple example of this is illustrated. You notice the small circle that the hand points at in preference to the closer, larger circle. In a sense this is a kind of closure -- a grouping of disconnected items by momentum.

This feature is built into typography since we are taught to read left to right in our culture. Once you start reading you will continue across a gap to ............the next words.

All kinds of pointing devices are used in design. Many of these are more subtle than a pointing hand or arrow:

Eye direction: If the subject of a composition is looking in a particular direction, you will look to see what they are looking at. It is an old trick to look up into the sky and see how many other will look with you.

Paths: Rivers, roads, railroad tracks and rows of trees or telephone poles are just a few of the devices that artists have used to lead viewers to particular places in their compositions.

Perspective: Lines of perspective, like paths, can be used to direct attention to a focal point in a composition. You will study perspective in a few weeks when you study the design element space.

Leonardo de Vinci used some of these devices in his mural "The Last Supper." Notice how you look from one apostle to another because of the way they are looking at each other, but finally end up looking at Jesus. The building they are in uses one point linear perspective to also focus you on the central figure of Jesus.

Click on the "The Last Supper" thumbnail at the left to go to a larger (184 K), colored image to study.

You will study these two concepts together in the next lesson and make a project that uses a variety of type and an image to communicate a simple phrase.

A lesson about alignment will follow similarity and proximity. Alignment is a powerful device for creating order. You will use it to make a catalog page of images and words.
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