What is Gestalt?Gestalt is a German word, meaning shape, that refers to our understanding something as a whole, not merely the sum of its parts.
You see this in action in all sorts of places. Here it is with the Unilever logo.
If you understand the ‘laws’ of Gestalt, you can begin to encode multiple layers of meaning in your communication
Here’s an example of that in action in theFedex logo. This is a company that’s built it’s reputation of getting your stuff there, and you can see it, maybe unconsciously, in the logo.
Changing the colors makes the hidden arrow – connoting movement and getting there – stand out.
There’s a reason our brains do this Gestalt thing. Back on the Savannah, it was a question of evolutionary survival, being able to spot if you could get something for dinner, or you were going to be someone’s lunch.
The fathers of modern Gestalt Theory were philosophers and Psychologists, who conducted a lot of the pioneering research into Gestalt psychology at the turn of the last century.
They postulated that part of the human condition is to seek patterns and meaning from things, to make connections, where sometimes none exists, and to see things in wholes, sometimes based on partial information. That’s the basis of Gestalt thinking.
This isn’t new. Mankind has been doing it since they first looked up at the heavens and saw hunters, bulls and horses laid out in the stars.
But as we began to understand these principles, we began to use it. To hide things, (like this WWII dazzle camoflage)
And to make things stand out (like this product packaging, a strawberry Jam – even though I don’t speak whatever language the label is in)
For presenters, the challenge is to choose to use these Gestalt principles, and have them work in our favor, to reinforce the message, rather than by mistake, and have it work against us.
There are 6 (of many) useful principles that we can use. Figure/ Ground, Proximity, Closure, Similarity, Continuation and Experience.
Figure/ Ground is featured in many optical illusions. By flipping figure/ ground, we can see trees, or a face in the trees.
It’s a question of what we want people to be able to see. Usually that’s a question of making the figure stand out from the ground.
Proximity is our natural instinct to interpret meaning from the grouping of things. Most will assume that the bottom set of marks are in some way different from the others, merely from their grouping and alignment.
This rule is often applied in infographics and charts, such as this famous example, which uses proximity to show the illusion of choice supplied by brands (via reddit and policymic)
Closure is another principle of Gestalt. Our minds naturally seek to fill in blanks. We don’t need to see the whole of something to know, or think we know, that it’s there.
This is often used in design. Take this example in website design the website of global design agency Pentagram, which uses subtle grey lines to box off their selected works and group them. There is no box, just the illusion of a box.
Continuation, that is that our eyes naturally follow edges, lines and forms, is another useful principle.
Here it’s used to great effect in this chart from BusinessWeek. The bars continue to become the labels.
Continuation doesn’t just happen in 2 or 3 dimensions. It can happen in time, as we sequence through slides in a deck, we look for certain elements to continue, to ground our understanding.
Experience is one of the few principles that isn’t pre-attentive. That is, it’s something we learn over time, and has different cultural nuances, as opposed to some of the others which seem to be instinctual.Experience allows us to interpret shapes and give them meaning. For instance, this to me looks like a cocktail glass. To a Martian, it may be a random series of black shapes.
Experience allows us to read words when they’re not written in English, or spelled correctly, but they’re close enough.
And it allows us to render meaning from a vast array of icons and pictograms, even though we may never have seen that actual form before.
It’s up to us how we use Gestalt. The key is to use it in your favor in your presentations.