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Copyright © 1999 by Bonnie Skaalid

Gestalt Principles of Perception


Gestalt theory first arose in 1890 as a reaction to the prevalent psychological theory of the time - atomism. Atomism examined parts of things with the idea that these parts could then be put back together to make wholes. Atomists believed the nature of things to be absolute and not dependent on context. Gestalt theorists, on the other hand, were intrigued by the way our mind perceives wholes out of incomplete elements [1, 2]. "To the Gestaltists, things are affected by where they are and by what surrounds them...so that things are better described as "more than the sum of their parts."" [1, p. 49]. Gestaltists believed that context was very important in perception. An essay by Christian von Ehrenfels discussed this belief using a musical example. Take a 12 note melody. Play it in one key, say the key of C. Now change to another key, say the key of A flat. There might not be any notes the same in the two songs, yet a person listening to it knows that it is the same tune. It is the relationships between the notes that give us the tune, the whole, not which notes make up the tune.

Gestalt Principles:

If you are interested in reading about how to apply gestalt theory to the design of more readable technical diagrams, check out an article by Moore & Fitz [3]. This article is very interesting, because it starts with a very poorly designed diagram and by using gestalt principles, transforms it into one which is much more useful.

[1] Behrens, R. (1984). Design in the visual arts. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[2] Mullet, K. & Sano, D. (1995). Designing visual interfaces: Communication oriented techniques. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

[3] Moore, P. & Fitz, C. (1993). Gestalt theory and instructional design. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 23(2), 137-157.

Theory:[Classic Graphic Design Theory] [Gestalt Theory of Perception] [Human Computer Interface Design]

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