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Guide to Gestalt Theory

The Gestalt Principles of Grouping and Hierarchy

GESTALT THEORY in art Gestalt theory, a theory about perception, holds that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It describes our ability to: Recognise patterns and make associations; group objects that are close together into a larger unit; relate and group objects of similar shape.

  • Gestalt principles explain how the eye creates a whole (gestalt) from parts.

The power of white space for grouping derives from the Gestalt principle of grouping. Here are the six principles identified by the Gestalt:

  1. Proximity. Elements that are closer to each other are more likely to be grouped together. You see four vertical columns of circles, because the circles are closer vertically than they are horizontally.

  2. Similarity. Elements with similar attributes are more likely to be grouped. You see four rows of circles in the example, because the circles are more alike horizontally than they are vertically.

  3. Continuity. The eye expects to see a contour as a continuous object. You primarily perceive the Continuity example above as two crossing lines, rather than as four lines meeting at a point, or two right angles sharing a vertex.

  4. Closure. The eye tends to perceive complete, closed figures, even when lines are missing. We see a triangle in the center of the example, even though its edges aren’t complete.

  5. Area. When two elements overlap, the smaller one will be interpreted as a figure in front of the larger ground. So we tend to perceive the example as a small square in front of a large square, rather than a large square with a hole cut in it.

  6. Symmetry. The eye prefers explanations with greater symmetry. So the example is perceived as two overlapping squares, rather than three separate polygons.