Why I care about Gestalt, and why you should too…

Okay, so here we go. One of the very first aspects of design you all need to understand, whether you’re a seasoned veteran (enrolled in WGD 205) or just dipping that big toe in the vast “web design waters” (sorry…very lame, but shout out to ALL of you, Joseph and Elise, in WGD 201!)…is Gestalt. It impacts everything you design, and ultimately, you will work your heart out to break all these “rules of design.”

But for now, for all of you, the definition of Gestalt” Gestalt theory first arose in 1890 as a reaction to the prevalent psychological theory of the time – atomism. Atomism examined parts of things with the idea that these parts could then be put back together to make wholes. (“Hi there, why yes, I am an Atomist!…put THAT on a campaign button!) Atomists believed the nature of things to be absolute and not dependent on context. Gestalt theorists, on the other hand, were intrigued by the way our mind perceives wholes out of incomplete elements.

“To the Gestaltists, things are affected by where they are and by what surrounds them…so that things are better described as “more than the sum of their parts.” Gestaltists believed that context was very important in perception.

An essay by Christian von Ehrenfels discussed this belief using a musical example. Take a 12 note melody. Play it in one key, say the key of C. Now change to another key, say the key of A flat. There might not be any notes the same in the two songs, yet a person listening to it knows that it is the same tune. It is the relationships between the notes that give us the tune, the whole, not which notes make up the tune.

So…what are your thoughts on design and Gestalt? Talk to me about why this matters to you, and why this is important.

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  • chriswren  On November 10, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    I guess I am an anti-atomist, to say the least. I’m more in line with the “Gestalt pschology.” Everything we observe and begin to process in our minds is part of a bigger picture. You may see different parts of an image initially, then you try to make sense of what you’re looking at. You put it in context. The only time you see the “nature of things to be absolute and not dependent on context,” is in mathematics or things directly related to mathematics. Think about it. Everything else is contextual. For example; space, color, type, and layout can all directly affect how an image is interpreted. The observer looks at the composition as a whole. If there is a particular element that stands out, it’s usually done on purpose for empahsis, and that one element now affects the whole design in a different way. Even if you notice elements that are independent of each other, you come to this conclusion by first interpreting the whole design, then analyzing the parts, like through deductive reasoning.

  • barbdwire55  On November 4, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    For several years, I have been amazed with group dynamics. It is interesting to me how you can take several people to make up a group to acheive something. Take one person out of the group and the group changes. Add a new person and the group changes again. I think this is a good example of Gestalt.

    You can apply this to design easily. Once you start to add individual pieces or elements the magic happens. It is as if something else is created with the relationship between the elements. Each element has its own importance, but placing the elements together amplifies that magic.

    When it comes to designing with a group, a collaboration will bring ideas out that otherwise might not have come up. It sounds like Gestalt has a quality of creation which is perfect for creative pursuits.

  • franciscoacosta  On November 2, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    I personally believe the gestalt theory is a correct because each individual part of something, especially in design, is important. Without one element to make the piece complete, the design is completely different. It is like taking a crib out of a nursery, it is not going to be the same. This means color, tone, balance, and many more elements must be all present in order to complete a design. The theory makes a good point when it talks about things being more than just the sum of its parts because every single element needs to be present to make the piece look complete.

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