gestalt theory

“the whole is other than the sum of the parts” – kurt koffka

this oft-used quote, by koffka, can be used to summarise gestalt theory in a single sentence. this theory deals with the fact that very often the ‘whole’ that we experience/see/hear is not the same as merely dissecting something into pieces and adding them together. there are various ways in which we process input in such a way that we actually perceive more than is present, or perceive it differently. for example, consider the well-known image of a rubin vase in figure 1. this image is actually of a white vase on a black background, but sometimes it is perceived as two black profiles of faces on a white background.

figure 2: rubin vase

figure 1: rubin vase

there are various principles that influence what we actually see in an image. some of these principles will be discussed below, but this is in no way an exhaustive list of the principles of gestalt theory. some of these principles are of greater influence than others and so can override the effects of another principle.

law of simplicity

this law, also known as the law of prägnanz or the law of good form, states that when we see a complex shape, we may perceive it as consisting of simpler components. an example of this can be seen in figure 2 and figure 3. the complex object given in figure 2 might easily be perceived as a triangle, circle and rectangle (as indicated in figure 3) instead of a the new whole complex object.

figure 2: complex structure

figure 2: complex structure

figure 3:

figure 3: simpler components

this fundamental aspect of gestalt theory can also be used to explain why we often see familiar shapes when looking at clouds. we want to perceive the most simplistic forms, and forms which we have previously encountered are familiar to us, and ‘less complex’.


the rubin vase, that can be seen in figure 1, is a good example how the figure-ground principle can cause us to stumble in our perception of what we are seeing. when looking at an image, the image is decomposed into a figure and background. for example, in figure 2 the complex object in black is seen as the figure and the surrounding white space is perceived as the background. on a white page with black print on it, the white is perceived as the background whereas the black print on it is perceived to be the figure. with images such as the rubin vase, however, whether the white space or the black space is seen as the figure, the perceived figure is an object that most of us will be familiar with us (a vase or a face). the edges separating the figure and background is often interpreted as belonging to the object. this aspect of gestalt theory can be used to explain why camouflage works so well. instead of being in contrast with the background, camouflage enables animals (or the wearer of camouflage clothing) to blend into the background by using the same colours, and possibly similar textures, as the background and in so doing  making it difficult to distinguish a figure, especially if no figure is expected.


proximity is defined as “nearness in space, time, or relationship”, by the oxford dictionary. understandably then, the proximity principle in gestalt theory states that objects which are near each other are considered to be together / part of one greater object. the objects which are near each other do not necessarily have to look alike for the proximity principle to take effect. for example, consider figure 4. even though the rectangles are all similar, and the circles are all similar, the perceived groupings are that there is one group at the top left, and another at the bottom right, both consisting of circles and rectangles.

figure 4: proximity principle

figure 4: proximity principle



the similarity principle sates that objects that look similar will be perceived together. similarity can be in the areas of shape, size, orientation and colour. one example of this principle can be seen in figure 5. even though all the objects are rectangles of the same size, the black rectangles and blue rectangles may be perceived as two different groups.

figure 5: similarity principle

figure 5: similarity principle

in figure 4 we saw that the perceived groupings of the objects were according to the distance the objects were apart, even though all the rectangles and all the circles were similar. it can be deduced, therefore, that the proximity principle is higher on the hierarchy of gestalt principles than the similarity principle.


oftentimes we perceive some lines to be continuous lines whereas they could also be defined as separate lines. for instance, consider the figure 6. the most likely perception of this figure would be that there are two dashed lines – one horizontal and one vertical – that intersect in the middle. the figure is not perceived as having 18 lines, or as 4 separate dashed lines that come together in the middle – both these interpretations can also be correct. the reason for this is the continuity principle, whereby, when shapes are aligned, they together form a larger whole. as another example of the continuity principle, consider figure 7. in figure 7, the lines in (a) will more likely be perceived as grouped as in (b) than in (c). the reason for this is again the alignment of the lines. when coming to the intersection, a choice has to be made regarding whether to continue with the same course or change direction. going in the same direction is more natural and thus we perceive the red and blue lines as in (b) more readily as that in (c).

figure 6: continuity principle

figure 6: continuity principle

figure 7: continuity

figure 7: continuity


the closure principle allows us to perceive ‘information’ where there is none, and in so doing helps us recognise patterns/shapes which are suggested, but not explicitly drawn. consider, as an example, the logo of the world wildlife fund in figure 8. we immediately perceive a panda, though there are definitely lines missing to complete the entire panda. the closure principle is therefore similar to the simplicity principle in the effect that it has – it allows us to discern simpler objects than only what is seen. it differs from the simplicity principle in that here, instead of breaking up a large complex whole into smaller, simpler objects, the (sometimes disjoint) objects are seen as a whole.

figure 8: closure

figure 8: closure


these are but 6 of the principles of gestalt that influence how we perceive objects that we see. there are many more, such as symmetry, common fate, past experience, uniform connectedness, common regions, parallelism etc. for more information on these, see the list of references.

list of references

1. m. soegaard, gestalt principles of form perception, interactive design foundation.
2. s. bradley, design principles: visual perception and the principles of gestalt, smashing magazine, march 2014,
3. spokane falls community college, the gestalt principles.
4. k. broom, theory of visual perception.
5. s. grais, gestalt principles.
6. d. todorovic, gestalt principles. scholarpedia, 2008






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