Gestalt & Perception

How perception affects our lives

Perception helps us interpret the world around us. We rely on it to understand our surroundings. For example, we develop ideas about an upcoming event based on our personal and past experiences. We view the world through our individual perceptions.

Visually Communication

One of the primary forms of communication is visual communication. If you placed two people in a room for a week, neither of whom spoke the same language, they would rely on physical gestures and drawing images to communicate. 

Body language is one of our strongest forms of visual communication. We unconsciously rely on it to supply cues and information, more so than the spoken word. When talking between 60-90% of the message is communicated through body language, leaving the remainder attributable to the spoken word.

In the commercial arts, we rely heavily on images to communicate with our audience.

The brain at work

Visual information is often altered once it travels from the eye to the brain. The brain simplifies preconceived information, eliminating the details that it deems unnecessary.

For example, consider a traffic stop sign. We know through learned behavior what a stop sign looks like and it’s meaning. When you approach a stop sign, you don’t need to observe all of the fine details to understand what the sign means and the action it’s requiring. Because it is a familiar sign, at a glance, you know to stop the vehicle.

The distance from the viewer to an object also affects the way the brain interprets visual information. Continuing with the stop sign example, if you’re a half a block away from the sign, your brain understands its meaning.  The same is true if you are standing 5 feet away from the sign.

But, if you were to observe the same sign while flying overhead in a plane, it would not be recognizable. Your mind would perceive it as a point on the ground. So to summarize, the brain will “understand” familiar objects at varying distances, except for extreme distances.

Consistency of presentation

Perception begins at birth! At birth, we are regularly exposed to images and symbols. We become accustomed to certain visual consistencies. We have an expectation of how specific things should look.  For example: a stop sign has a specific size, height, and color; the symbols used for male and female public washrooms signs; the human face has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth; or how a world map should look.

Let’s look at a world map. Generally speaking, maps are created with the land displayed as brown or green, and water such as oceans, sea, lake, rivers, are shown as blue. Counties are identified with borders made of thick lines. When individual states are displayed, the state borders are thinner than those used to separate the countries.

If we were to reverse the colors of the water (blue) to brown and vice-versa, or is we were to change the thickness of the boundary and state lines, it would create complete havoc with our brains’ preconceived idea of the map.

In his book Contemporary Color Theory and Use, Steven Bleicher, talks about an experiment using a stop sign. The color of the sign was changed from red to green, with everything else remaining the same, including the locations of the sign.

Drivers regularly drove through the intersection without stopping. When pulled over by the researchers and questioned, the drivers often said they saw the sign, but because the sign was green, and green means go, they didn’t stop. Another example of consistency of presentation at play.

Cultural exceptions

Some perceptions are universal such as understanding the human face, while other perceptions are cultural. In western countries, the tradition is for brides wear white. In China, the tradition is for the bride to wear red. In China the color white is worn for mourning!

What is Gestalt?

Perception rules are derived from Gestalt psychology which was developed in Germany in 1912. Gestalt perception states the viewer can understand relationships between the different design elements using incomplete information.

We unconsciously take the incomplete parts and develop a whole (image) within the viewer’s mind.

We rely on the size, form, value, and placement of all the design elements on the picture plane to understand the image. Each component of composition relies on and affects one another.  In other words, the whole is comprised of its parts.

Selected Perception Concepts

Overlap  When shapes overlap one another, the shape lay “on top” gives the illusion of being the closest to the viewer.

Closure Closure is when an object is partially drawn, yet the brain reads the object as a whole. In other words, the brain fills in the form using the existing visual information. Enough information must be supplied for the brain to “jump to the right conclusion.” We talked about this concept when discussed having enough visual information.

Similarity When objects share similar features, they are interpreted as a group or set. Proximity helps to stregthen this concept.

Nearness or Proximity When objects are placed near one another, they are read as a group. The shapes can be similar, or not, the nearness of the forms is what counts.

Figure & Ground  The mind perceives a figure (positive space) and a ground (negative space). This concept we have studied as negative/positive space.

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