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Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception

The Gestalt School of Psychology has contributed greatly to our understanding of visual perception over time. Gestalt research began in 1912, and the original intent was to uncover how we perceive pattern, form, and organization. In fact, the German word gestalt simply means “pattern.”

The research has since yielded a series of Gestalt principles of perception. These principles reveal that we tend to group objects in particular ways, and these findings are relevant to the design of tables, charts, and graphs.

Learning about the Gestalt principles can make your spreadsheet design better and more effective overall. Therefore, we will cover these principles in this article and provide visual examples for each.

The Principle of Proximity

This principle states that we perceive objects that are close to each other as belonging to a group. In the example below, there are nine circles.

Due to the Principle of Proximity, we perceive these as three groups.

Application to Spreadsheets – Table Design

This principle can be applied to the design of tables in spreadsheets. You can direct the reader to scan across rows or down columns by spacing the data to emphasize either the row or column groupings.

Take a look at the examples below.

The Principle of Similarity

This principle states that we tend to group objects similar in shape, color, size, and orientation.

Here are a few examples.

We tend to group objects of similar shape.

We tend to group objects of similar color.

We tend to group objects of similar size.

We tend to group objects of similar orientation.

Application to Spreadsheets – Table Design

Using a color difference, you can direct the reader to focus primarily across rows.

You can do the same thing to direct them down columns.

The Principle of Enclosure

This principle states that we perceive objects as belonging together when they are enclosed in a way that appears to create a boundary around them.

Here are two examples.

 

Application to Spreadsheets – Identifying Headers or Totals

Using the Principle of Enclosure, you can make it easy for the reader to quickly identify the headers and totals in a large set of data.

The Principle of Closure

This principle states that open structures are perceived as closed, complete, and regular whenever there is a way that they can be reasonably interpreted as such.

In other words, when we see objects that are incomplete but almost complete, our brain wants to try and fill that gap or loose end. We will perceive an almost rectangle as a full rectangle for example.

Here is another example, but with an oval instead.

Application to Spreadsheets – Chart Design

Whenever you create a bar graph or line graph, you don’t need to enclose all four sides of the chart in a border. Instead, simply having the x-axis and y-axis is sufficient. Our brains will fill in the gap and perceive the entire chart as a complete rectangle.

The Principle of Continuity

This principle states that we perceive objects as part of a single whole if they are aligned with one another or appear to form a continuation of one another.

Take a look at the image below. We perceive this as one rectangle and one continuous line.

If you separate the two shapes, there are actually three lines and one rectangle.

However, due to the Principle of Continuity, our brain perceives the picture as one rectangle and one continuous line.

Application to Spreadsheets – Chart Design

Capitalizing on the Principle of Continuity, we do not always have to draw an extra axis for our graphs. In the bar graph below, no y-axis is shown. Instead, the left alignment of all the bars makes it obvious that they share the same baseline. This is due to the Principle of Continuity, and no vertical axis is needed.

The Principle of Connection

This principle states that we perceive objects that are connected as part of the same group. In the image below, there are four circles evenly spaced from one another. However, because there are lines that connect two pairs of circles, there is a clear perception of horizontally attached groups.

It is important to note that connection exercises more power over visual perception than proximity or similarity.

However, it is not as strong as enclosure.

Application to Spreadsheets – Chart Design

The Principle of Connection makes lines a useful method of connecting items in graphs. Plus, lines in a graph not only create a clear sense of connection but also display a clear shape of the data when appropriate.

Overall, understanding the Gestalt Principles will make you better at visual organization and design.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. This is so cool how this effects our every day lives. It’s so cool how you can link it all back to spreadsheets! I would love to see more posts like this!

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