How Gestalt Principles, Rule of Thirds, and the Z Pattern Create Good Graphic Design

Updated on December 24, 2016

Type Based Wedding Invitation

Type-based wedding invitation for a Southern wedding.
Type-based wedding invitation for a Southern wedding. | Source

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

We all know the old adage, "Keep it simple, stupid!" The old adage is true for a reason. Good graphic design does one thing very well: it communicates.

How you arrange elements on a page will determine how a person's eye scans the page, and how it perceives the importance of one element versus another. Understanding the basic fundamentals of perception will help to demystify the process.

By keeping a design simple, you let the message take center stage, as shown in this typographic wedding invitation. The subtle wood element gives the viewer an expectation of a country or slightly casual wedding. The subtle gradient and shading give the type some depth. The sizing of the letters makes them stand out, and the contrast of the chosen color on the type makes it easy to read.

We're not struggling to figure out what the message is and our eyes ultimately land on the date area of the design, which was the intent.

Z Pattern & Rule of Thirds

Z Pattern
Z Pattern
Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds

The Z Pattern and Rule of Thirds

In the west, we read from left to right and top to bottom, therefore our eye will scan most layouts in what's known as the Z Pattern, meaning we begin at the top left, we scan across (think of where a headline is!) then we scan the "guts" of the page to get a gist of the content, and we then scan across the bottom, quite naturally looking for the "Call to Action" - as marketers call it.

A CTA or Call to Action is often telling the viewer to do something. "Find our products at your local retailer." or sometimes more directly "Buy now!" - a CTA can even be something as "visit our website". If your piece doesn't need a Call to Action, and is merely informational, this is a great place to list a web url, contact information, a phone number, etc. This is also why, quite often the logo is in the bottom left corner - this is sometimes known as a 'dead zone' since the eye will naturally scan the page from left to right, passing over (but still noticing) the logo.

The rule of thirds is often learned in photography, fine art, and other times of composition that has a border (like something printed or framed). Quite often the most interesting part of the image is in the center, surrounded with negative space.

The rule of thirds can also be applied to layouts in print, grids in layouts and other elements. Quite often applying the rule of thirds to your layout will help it to become more organized. Additionally, the rule of thirds can be applied to smaller elements within a design - often information is well organized in 3 columns, 3 lines, etc.

Even in the more full-width example shown above, the rule of thirds is apparent.

Introduction to Gestalt

Gestalt means: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Now, rather than show you the classic collage of the vegetables that create a face, I'm going to demonstrate the gestalt principles in their most simplistic way - because with all great design, less is truly more.

The Gestalt principles of perception try to describe the way that our eyes perceive certain forms. The way some things may appear closer or further away, in an image, and the way the eyes perceive depth, direction, and 3D space on a flat surface - which is why I often translate the vagueness from a client of "make it pop" as - revisit your Gestalt principles & make it interesting.

Gestalt Principles Illustrated Simply

Gestalt Law of Proximity
Gestalt Law of Proximity | Source
Gestalt Law of Similarity
Gestalt Law of Similarity | Source
Gestalt Law of Closure
Gestalt Law of Closure | Source
Gestalt Law of Symmetry
Gestalt Law of Symmetry | Source
Gestalt Law of Common Fate
Gestalt Law of Common Fate | Source
Gestalt Law of Figure Ground
Gestalt Law of Figure Ground | Source
Gestalt Law of Continuation
Gestalt Law of Continuation | Source

Explore the Gestalt Principles of Perception

The Law of Proximity: when items are viewed as a group, based on their proximity (or distance) to one another. In my example, which was truly by complete accident - the four squares are perceived as a window, while the two squares are perceived as a door, merely by the squares' proximity to one another, as well as the placement within the outer shape.

The Law of Similarity: when items are viewed as "similar" or part of a family by certain characteristics. In my example, there's a clear outsider.

The Law of Closure: when part of a shape is left out, but the eye takes the natural step of closing it off. (We know that the entire shape is intended, even if it isn't there) and when we see a crescent we always imagine the missing sphere of the moon.

The Law of Symmetry: The mind perceives a center point when items are arranged symmetrically, and this often gives an organic, or living quality to the elements.

The Law of Common Fate: While this may sound morbid (and true! LOL) it doesn't mean that we're all headed in the same direction (but we are, aren't we?!). When items are arranged directionally, we perceive them as moving in a direction. Again, this can often take on the feeling of movement, or tension - both of which give the viewer the feeling of being involved or interacting with the design.

The Law of Figure Ground: In most compositions (think of a classic landscape painting or photo) we perceive some things to be in the foreground, and some to be in the background. With very simple techniques applied, we can push an item to the foreground or background by how it is positioned on the page relative to other items. Even in the simple wedding invitation, the text is clearly in the foreground with the wood in the background. In this case the figure and ground was not achieved with shapes but with shading and contrast. In the example to the right, it was achieved with simple shapes. The famous artist MC. Escher was famous for his use of figure ground.

In my example, the white bar and triangle becomes a horizon line and a structure, while the black background becomes a sky, and falls to the background.

The Law of Continuity: The eye will perceive the continuation of a line even when it is broken, with the understanding that the two lines are separate entities.

In my example, two curved lines give the perception of two separate hills. You may also be noticing that one is in the foreground and one is in the background.

The Gestalt principles of perception play nicely together, and often occur together.

The Gestalt Principles are the magic in great design. When a customer tells you to "make it pop" revisit your gestalt principles - these are SO much more effective than some hoakey Photoshop effects. Ditch the outer glow and remember your training!

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Begin to Study What You See

In looking at seemingly everyday compositions you begin to notice that the Gestalt principles are ever-present. Do you notice the Law of Common Fate created by the direction that the eyes are gazing, or the closure that your mind creates for whatever is missing? Even in the photograph, itself, the rule of thirds is apparent.

Plat à décor aquatique, dynastie Qing, période Kangxi (1662-1722), fin du 17ème siècle. Mu
Plat à décor aquatique, dynastie Qing, période Kangxi (1662-1722), fin du 17ème siècle. Mu | Source

More Gestalt

On this intricate plate we see Figure Ground, created by the positioning of the water and the overlapping trees. Continuation is demonstrated in the organic round leaves framing the image, and the Law of Common Fate is shown in the positioning of the birds, the water, the grass, and the flowers - even the rocks demonstrate the Law of Common Fate.

The Gestalt Principles help to visually organize different elements. These principles can be seen in photography, in great art, and in graphic design (hopefully!).

The Gestalt Principles can solve the toughest of design challenges, and can take a boring, flat design, and truly make it come to life, while adding visual interest, hierarchy and overall continuity.

Questions & Answers


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      • mariacolomy profile image

        Maria Colomy 16 months ago from Nashville, TN

        Great! I'll be doing more design-related writing soon!

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 16 months ago from the short journey

        Making designs come to life is crucial to successfully achieving the goal for a project. Thanks for putting this info in a hub for us. I'll be returning.