The Gestalt laws of perception (explained with cats)

The silhouettes of the heads of two cats that can also be viewed as a vase.

During my studies in Advertising I had the opportunity to learn a few concepts related to design, perception and visual composition. As it sometimes happens, as time went by I forgot many things I didn’t want to forget (and others that I did), but the simple act of paying attention and conceptualizing these processes would influence the way I would see and produce images forever.

One of the theories I remember the most are the Gestalt laws of the perceptual organization, a set of principles by which this German School proved that we perceive visual stimuli as part of a whole and according to their relations of similarity or difference with the surrounding elements. You probably heard the axiom which is usually used to summarize this thought:
The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
In this post I take the opportunity to recall, and to teach them to you if you didn’t know them, the main rules of perceptual organization of this school, and I will do so with illustrated with cats, which as everyone knows, is the best way to learn things today.

1. Figure and ground

This law defends that the brain can’t interpret an object as a figure and as a background simultaneously.Several small cats organized so as to leave a gap that has the form of a large cat.

2. Similarity 

We tend to associate similar stimuli grouping them as parts of the same figure (even if they are not identical).Many cats are aligned to form a grid. If you pay close attention you can see that one of the cats is actually a dog.

3. Proximity

Our brain groups elements based on the on the distance that separates them.

Two pairs of cats consisting each one on a white cat and a grey one.

4. Good figure or Pragnanz

The brain sees the forms in the most regular, simple, symmetrical and ordered possible way, removing irregularities from consciousness.

A cat that is missing a fragment of his ear and has a bandage on his head.

5. Closure

The brain tends to complete unfinished images. A square of darkness where you can see three pairs of bright cat eyes.

6. Common Fate

Elements that move in the same direction and speed are perceived as one unit.A wall on which there are several cats. Some are sitting, but there are three of them walking one after another. According to the theory, our brain is more likely to see these three as a group.

7. Continuity 

Stimuli shaped in the same continuity are perceived as a unit. Even if various forms intersect or are hidden behind others, our brain will try to separate them.

The silhouettes of two black cats. As they are one behind the other and their color is the same, it seems there is only one shape.

So these were the basic laws of Gestalt. The world is full of ads, book covers and other formats that apply them more or less explicitly. If you analyze your own perceptual process focusing on some of these examples, you’ll end up embracing them and developing a more critical eye.

Knowing how the brain processes images will also allow you to organize your designs and graphic compositions in a more harmonic (or dissonant) way.


What do you think about these laws of perception? Do you know any others? Do you think you can apply them to your work? 


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.