Gestalt Theory in Interactive Media Design : Introduction to Gestalt Theory

Gestalt psychology was developed during the 1920’s by three German psychologists, Wertheimer, Koffka and Kohler. Visual artists and designers of the twentieth century adopted gestalt perceptual factors to improve their work. Books including Kepes’s Language of Vision (1944) and Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception (1954) codified gestalt visual principles for use in design education. What these scholars did not anticipate is the evolution of interactive designs such as web pages, and how gestalt visual principles apply to interactive documents. This article examines a select group of major gestalt visual principles and places them within the context of interactive media design.

Introduction to Gestalt Theory
Gestalt, (pronounced “ge-shtalt”), is a German word, which loosely translated, means “configuration.” Austrian and German psychologists conducted much of the initial research behind gestalt theory in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, among them Christian von Ehrenfels, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler. Gestalt theory grew out of the field of psychology, but has influenced researchers from a multitude of disciplines, including linguistics,1 musicology,2 instructional design,3 human-computer interaction,4 architectural healthcare design,5 sustainable design,6 and art and visual communication.7 Visual artists and designers were interested in gestalt laws of perception because they provided a scientific method explaining human perception and our tendency to “group” things. Wertheimer’s visual research, in particular, explored why some images seem to belong together as part of a unit or group while others seem separate. Max Wertheimer explained Gestalt Theory:

“The fundamental “formula” of Gestalt theory might be expressed in this way: There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.”8 Another explanation is that gestalt refers to a structure, configuration, or layout that is unified and has specific properties that are greater than the simple sum of its individual parts. For example, a person reading text perceives each word first as a complete word and its meaning rather than seeing individual letterforms. Each letterform is clearly an individual unit, but the greater meaning depends on the arrangement of the letterforms into a specific configuration (a word). Another analogy is the individual frames in a movie. Each frame in a movie may be considered separately, and judged on its compositional strength, but it is the rapid projection of multiple frames across time that forms the perception of movement and narrative continuation. Gestalt theory provides rational explanations for why shifts in spacing, timing, and configuration can have a profound effect on the meaning of presented information. While gestalt visual principles are easy to grasp, they are very powerful. Ignoring Gestalt visual theory may result in unexpected interpretations by the reader (see Figure 1),9 and therefore impede clear communication.

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Gestalt Theory in Interactive Media Design
Lisa Graham, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Arlington,

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