Gestalt psychology presents a set of laws where human perception is described in relation to how we group similar looking objects, recognise patterns and simplify complex objects. Gestalt principles are apparent in our everyday lives. They explain how we observe and organise information about the surrounding environment. They highlight the fact that our behaviour is most often based on how we perceive the world rather than how it really is. This offers many opportunities for marketing, as you are about to find out.
Looking for figures and closures
The six Gestalt principles are closure, figure / ground, continuity, common region, proximity and similarity. Closure refers to our preference to complete shapes. Our brains automatically fill in gaps between the elements of an image to form a complete picture that makes sense. For example, in the WWF logo, we perceive the black elements, fill in the white gaps and easily make an image of a panda.
A similar idea is also present in the figure / ground principle which says that in ambiguous images, we tend to see the foreground first and just after looking at the image for a while, see the background as well. In marketing, this principle is used for example in Toblerone logo, where the bear is buried in the mountain.
Finding cues of continuity and common region
The law of continuity describes our tendency to look a bit further and follow smooth paths. We do not want to wander off the beaten track but rather look for connected and continuous forms. When the path is clear, our eyes tend to continue moving in the path’s direction until another object (crossroad) is encountered.
When buying things online, we are directed towards items often purchased together with our chosen product (“customers who bought this, also bought…”) to make us buy even more. Products all lined up in similar ways, to help us continue the buying process.
The principle of common fate was not originally included in Gestalt theory, but it has the same tune to it as continuity. Common fate means that we often group things that point to or are moving in the same direction together.
The principle of common region states that the elements that are connected by consistent visuals in the same closed area stand out as being more related than elements that are not connected in the same area. This can be verified while reading newspapers, browsing webpages and surfing social media. On Instagram, for example, likes, shares and comments are grouped within the boundaries of one post and therefore form a unique group from other posts.
Linking objects with proximity and similarity
The principle of proximity also refers to our tendency to conclude that things that are close together are more related and can be seen as more of a group than things that are located farther apart. This even applies to situations where objects are different in colour or shape – if they are close together, they belong together. For example, Unilever logo contains over 20 symbols representing the natural world, which put together, form a U shape. Then again, if you want to emphasise an element, add some distance to the other elements.
The principle of similarity explains that our brains tend to group together things that are similar in appearance (in shape, size, colour and texture). For example, images and text of various sizes can be grouped together using a common colour on a website. Visitors quickly link items on a green background together and this helps them in processing the information.
The brain likes simple solutions
As human beings and consumers, if something is a bit amiss, we will instantly notice it. Our brains like simplicity and simple solutions, so we pick the smoothest paths. Our brains try very hard to look for interpretations, find sense in visuals and look for familiar clues until it finds an explanation.
With the best designs and compelling visuals, the world looks a little less chaotic. It also allows the message of the marketers to come across more clearly. Using elegant design and very few graphics as many elements can make the message confusing and messy. Less is indeed more.
We will explore cognitive biases – the shortcuts to decision-making – in our next blog. They, too, offer opportunities for marketing (or threats, if ignored or not understood).