Design & Gestalt Theory


To make solid design a designer must understand how people see, interpret and respond to visual information.  The designer then uses this knowledge to communicate a message or change a behavior.


We begin to see in terms of figure and ground.  The ground of a page is like a soccer field, or a place for action, the figure is the element on the page, or the player on the field.  A black square on white paper is the figure, the page is the ground.  The position of the square in an empty field is powerful.


Objects in an image have weight and directional pull that Rudolf Arnheim, in his work “Art and Visual Perception” coined Perceptual Forces.  Compare the examples below.  How does location and size of each square effect that pull between shapes.  What invisible lines, or perceptual forces, do you see between the shapes?  These are the sight vectors that shape a design.

Below are examples of near, far and multiple perceptual forces.

Even a ground has perceptual forces, or active emptiness.  The example below illustrates all the perceptual forces active on a blank square, adapted from Arnheim.  Think of this diagram as the structural skeleton of a square.



How a figure sits in a ground can create a state of balance or unbalance.  Examine the example below.  Is it balanced?  What influences your perception?


Balance is a desired state, where forces of equal strength pull in opposing directions so that the action becomes still.  The image then seems to just simply exist, no change is needed, all parts are useful.  Perceptual forces are at an equilibrium.  Your job as you design 2-D space:  Dynamic Balance.


Designers consider the cognitive process of seeing.  Gestalt theory was developed by a group of designers working to create a modern design.  Cognitive theorist Arnheim defined the following central principle:  “A design’s unity is more then a simple addition of its parts.” This means that all elements of a design work together in a composition.

In every design the following forces are at play:

  • Movement/Stability
  • Balance/Tension
  • Contrast/Similarity
  • Dominance/Equality

Below are some gestalt concepts as seen in relationships of rectangles.

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