Essential designer knowledge: the history & psychology behind gestalt theory
Recently gestalt theory (also gestaltism) has gained immense popularity, especially for designers. In fact it seems to be in trend. However, gestalt principles are also very helpful and designers should know about them.
Most authors discuss gestalt principles in an abstract form. Others focus on print design. There are few articles about gestaltism in digital products. While different at first, digital and print products adhere to the same layout rules. The details might be different from print publications, but the ideas remain relevant.
In this article series I want to highlight the impact of gestaltism on digital design. Furthermore, I want to explain how and why gestaltism works. This article focuses on gestalt psychology. Later articles will discuss individual principles in detail and illustrate their application to digital design.
Why should you read this article
You can use gestalt principles without knowing about the gestalt psychology background. If this is all you want, you can skip to the next part in this series.
You probably use some of the principles in your designs already. However, using gestalt principles to explain your work is much more interesting. Clients and coworkers will understand your reasoning and why your solution works. For this it is important to not only know that there is a principle, but also why and how it works.
The idea behind gestalt psychology
Gestalt psychologists argue, that we need to organize what we see in order to make sense of the world. There is a near infinity amount of information that reaches out retinas every second. Without using patterns to order it, we would overwhelm our brain.
Psychologists describe this ordering process as the combination of sensations into coherent scenes. The result of this process is a percept. A percept is a subjectively experienced, conscious result of a perceptual process.
— Zimbardo - Gerrig: Psychology
The idea is, that we make sense of our world by seeing the whole of it, rather than the individual parts.
Origins of gestalt psychology
“Gestalt psychology” as a name is not clearly defined. It is used for many psychological ideas around perception. The base for all ideas is a paper by Christian von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano) written in 1890. In it, he introduced the concept “Gestalt” to philosophy and psychology.
The “Berlin Laboratory of Experimental Psychology” defined what we know as “Gestalt psychology”. Founded in 1893, it was part of the Berlin School of experimental psychology. When Wolfgang Köhler took over the direction in 1922 it became a school for Gestalt psychology. Together with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, he founded Gestalt psychology as we know it.
What is gestalt psychology
Gestalt psychology or gestaltism describes a direction in psychology. The name derives from german, “Gestalt” meaning shape or form. This direction focuses on our ability to find organizational principles in sensations.
The basis for gestalt psychology is an idea von Ehrenfels describes in his paper. Perception has qualities that are different to the simple combination of sensory qualities. To understand, this you first need to know psychologist mean by a quality of a perception. A quality describes a sensation within a sensory domain like seeing or hearing. An electromagnetic wave that hits our retina can for example have a quality of "red" or "blue".
Kurt Koffka rephrase this as “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts”. (Often wrongly quoted as “more than”).
Imagine seeing a cat, instead of perceiving cat legs, cat ears, a cat body and a cat head, you see the whole cat. Max Wertheimer argued that we in fact perceive the whole first. Only once we have seen the cat, can we see the individual parts it consists of.
Psychologists would say that “gestalt” is perceptually primary. It means the whole defines the parts it is composed from. The opposite would mean the whole is a “secondary quality” that emerges from its parts. This would mean you see the parts first.
Because gestalt is perceptually primary, you see a cat and afterwards the stubby legs.
One criticism of gestalt psychology is that it is descriptive. This means it only describes psychological phenomenons. It can not make predictions or determine causality. Additionally behavior is interpreted from the experience of a person. This is called qualitative research, which some people see as less reliable.
However, recently some quantitative studies have supported the idea of gestalt psychology. Quantitative research focuses on big data sets instead of intense personal questioning.
The law of prägnanz is the fundamental principle of gestalt psychology. It states that we order experiences (sensations) so they are regular, orderly, symmetrical and simple.
Over time, gestalt was refined to include the principles of grouping. These are the principles of proximity, similarity, closure, symmetry, common fate, continuity, good gestalt and the principle of past experience.
Gestalt psychology is the idea that we make sense of the world by combining sensations into a whole, e.g. seeing a cat, rather than the individual parts it consists of.
The idea was refined into the gestalt principles or principles of grouping. Those explain how we combine the parts to a whole. An important realization is that the sum is different from its’ parts. This means a cat is not a mere collection of all parts that make it. In combination, those parts from a specific cat. One we recognize and attribute with a personality.