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The Visual Perception Principles of Gestalt Psychology

Wei-Fan Chenuser-interface-design

Special tendency occurs when our eyes and brain observe objects and perceive visual stimuli. The tendency usually helps us to identify objects faster, but sometimes it also causes the “illusion”. The main concept of Gestalt Psychology is “the whole is other than the sum of the parts”. For example, when we observe a person, we don’t look at his hands, feet, head, eyes, ears, or nose separately and then combine the visual image of these parts into a person. We perceive the whole figure of the person rather than the sum of his separate parts.

Gestalt Psychology, which has had a significant influence on other areas of psychology, was founded by Max Wertheimer and other psychologists in the early 20th century. Gestalt psychologists emphasized that organisms perceive entire patterns or configurations, not merely individual components. The visual perception principles of Gestalt Psychology consist of the following four features.

1. Law of Closure

When observing an object, we tend to perceive several separate elements as a closed pattern. Our brain automatically fills in missing elements and the gap between the elements to create invisible lines. As shown in the figure above, we view the series of dots as a large ring and the disconnected line segments as a complete ring. This is called the law of closure.

You can also refer to information such as “invisible but important virtual curves”, “law of closure”, and “positive/negative space”.

2. Law of Similarity

We tend to perceive identical objects as a unit. When we see a series of squares and circles placed side by side as shown in the figure above, we will perceive them as two rows of squares and two rows of circles rather than vertical columns. This is because the law of similarity prompts our eyes and brain to group identical objects together.

3. Law of Proximity

Interestingly, once the distance between each shape is widened, we tend to view objects close to each other instead of identical objects as a group. So in the figure above, we will see vertical rows consisting of two squares and circles. This may indicate proximity outweighs similarity. The law of proximity is constantly applied in user interfaces. For example, we tend to see proximate buttons as a collective group.

4. Law of Symmetry

Our brain tends to perceive objects as a continuous shape. In the figure above, for example, we see the left pattern as 2 crossing curves rather than 2 rings touching each other. Meanwhile,  we consider the right pattern as 2 crossing straight lines instead of two diamonds contacting each other. This may be because the brain is more agile when processing continuous objects than when processing overlapped or discontinuous objects.

The visual perception principles of Gestalt Psychology can be applied in a variety of areas including user interface, art, design, and photography. Understanding our visual perception principles will help us design better interfaces.

Apart from visual perception, Gestalt Psychology also asserts that we not only extract information from the visual stimulus we perceive, we also combine the information with the cognition, impression, and experience in our brain. The combination of these elements is what we truly recognize and feel. 

Image source:, CC Licensed

Wei-Fan Chen
Wei-Fan Chen
CEO / SPARKFUL and Fourdesire
Entrepreneur in entertainment and play for wellness / Author of Playable Design / Active indie game developer 🎉
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