Visual Design Principles

Visual Design is an important part of Usability because we always need to take into consideration how the human brain processes information. Essentially, human beings use visual clues to help us organize new information.

What Are the Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization?

Gestalt is a psychology term which means “unified whole”. It refers to theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied.

According to Gestalt psychology, the whole is different than the sum of its parts. Based upon this belief, Gestalt psychologists developed a set of principles to explain perceptual organization, or how smaller objects are grouped to form larger ones. These principles are often referred to as the “laws of perceptual organization.”

Law of Closure

Objects grouped together are seen as a whole.

Law of Closure

We tend to ignore gaps and to complete contour lines. In the image above there are no triangles or circles, but our minds fill in the missing information.


Similarly, the panda above is incomplete, but enough is present for the eye to easily complete the shape.

Law of Continuity

Continuity occurs when the eye is compelled to move through one object and continue to another object. Another way of saying the same thing is that lines are seen as following the smoothest path.


Continuation occurs in the example because the viewer’s eye will naturally follow a line or curve. The smooth flowing crossbar of the H leads the eye directly to the maple leaf.

Law of Similarity

Items that are similar tend to be grouped together.

Law of Similarity

In the example image, most people will see vertical columns of circles and squares.

A very important point for visual design: When similarity occurs an object can be emphasized if it is dissimilar to the others. This is called anomaly.


The figure on the far right stands out because it is different from the otherwise similar shapes.

Law of Proximity

Objects near each other tend to be grouped together.

Law of Proximity

The circles on the left appear to be grouped in vertical columns, while the circles on the right seem to be grouped in horizontal rows.

More Gestalt Principles

We’ve covered only a handful of the Gestalt Principles, the ones I feel are the most important to good Web design. For those interested in pursuing this fascinating topic, I’m going to provide a few resources that can take you much farther than we’ve gone here.

Scholarpedia article on Gestalt Principles

Smashing Magazine article on Visual Perception

NEXT The Mobil Web