GuidesProduct developmentGestalt psychology: Basic principles, examples, and uses

Gestalt psychology: Basic principles, examples, and uses

Last updated

2 April 2023

Reviewed by

Miroslav Damyanov

Have you ever read a sentence and not spotted an error, only to read it later and realize a word was missing? Gestalt psychology offers an explanation for this occurrence, suggesting that we perceive the properties of the whole differently from its parts.

The tenets of Gestalt psychology can be applied to all areas of our lives, including hobbies, family, and work. Researchers, therapists, business owners, product managers, teachers, and professionals can integrate Gestalt psychology principles across a host of real-life experiences. 

Learn more about the foundation of human perception through the history of the Gestalt school of thought, its core principles, key uses, and applied examples.

What is Gestalt psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that seeks to understand how the human brain perceives experiences. More specifically, it describes how people perceive objects and the environment around them as a whole instead of individual parts.

Naturally, and without realizing it, our brains draw correlations, allowing us to perceive the whole experience, not just the sum of its components. This is a concept rooted in decades of research, still presenting unique application opportunities today.

History of Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology isn't a new field. In the 1920s, a group of German and Austrian psychologists—Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967)—defined this set of beliefs in the 1920s.

Their studies and interpretations sought to make sense of the stimuli perceived by human eyes and how those elements differ from what the person suggests is being observed. Their resulting hypothesis set forth a predictable set of principles.

By understanding how the human brain works through the lens of these principles, we can make learning easier, products more attractive, and designs more aesthetically pleasing.

Influential Gestalt psychology

At the core of Gestalt psychology, there are principles rooted in how humans organize sensory information. Instead of seeing wood, shingles, and doors, we see a house. This grouping and correlating of things and surroundings influences how people interpret social experiences. 

Since the theory was first published in 1923, Gestalt psychology has taken its place among the great library of methods used to study and influence consumer thinking and behavior.

Principles of Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology has morphed to also be known as the Laws of Perception. It's the theory that explains how people seek patterns in the world around them. This framework is best applied when separated into each of its contributing principles.

Whether you’re a designer, artist, marketing professional, communicator, educator, or business owner, you can explore these principles and directly apply them to your work.

The six principles of Gestalt psychology are:

  • Figure-ground

  • Similarity

  • Proximity

  • Continuity

  • Closure

  • Prägnanz (symmetry and order)

Gestalt psychology principles with examples

Let’s look at the principles of Gestalt psychology, and use examples to better understand their concepts.


Using the figure-ground principle, you can recognize that people tend to perceive objects as being either in the background or the foreground. It's much like a photo in which items close up are clear, while the background remains slightly blurred.

The human brain operates in much the same way, seeking to position objects near and far.


The Gestalt law of similarity regards our behavior of grouping similar objects, designs, or shapes. The brain will automatically associate objects of similar color, shape, size, or texture with others that share the same characteristics.

An example is when you start shopping for a new car and settle on a particular make and model. As if someone had flipped a switch, you begin to notice all the other cars on the road just like yours or those similar to yours in color and design.


The law of proximity relates to how close or how far away an object is from others around it. These Gestalt applications are often used in design aesthetics, where specific figures are created in tandem and in proximity to other figures to help steer people’s perception.

Too much space between objects can intentionally isolate them from their surroundings.


Gestalt psychology's continuity principle refers to how the brain seeks lines to create a continuous image or experience. Anything perceived to be positioned in such a way that suggests successive groups or elements demonstrates continuity. The human brain will always seek out the smooth rather than the disjointed.

Take a movie as an example. Rather than individual shots or scenes, the brain connects all the scenes into a linear storyline and experience.


The closure principle of Gestalt psychology describes how the human brain naturally closes gaps and overlooks missing details to create the whole picture. Our brains automatically fill in the missing pieces.

For instance, when you read a sentence that is missing a "the" or an "a," you may miss the grammar mistake because your brain recognizes the meaning of the content first, before identifying the words and letters making up that content.


Prägnanz, also referred to as the Gestalt "law of simplicity," suggests that when the human brain is faced with an adverse or complex series of stimuli, it automatically looks for ways to simplify it.

Prägnanz in German means “good figure.” It’s also considered the law of symmetry and order, describing how the brain might isolate and recognize simple shapes in a collage of non-linear designs.

Artists use this concept to create illusions in their illustrations and to draw attention to simple concepts embedded in a sea of complex features.

Uses for Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology isn't just for psychologists looking to better understand the human brain and perception. There are a host of relevant applications for Gestalt methods in today's research, design, marketing, therapeutic, and product-development environments.

Gestalt therapy

Gestalt psychology has a place in therapy. Gestalt therapy was founded in the 1940s by Frederick and Laura Perls. They found useful applications in therapy sessions with patients, discussing differences in perspective to help reach resolution and understanding.

Therapists can also help patients take whole experiences and drill down on understanding the individual elements that led to a particular perception.


In the realm of art and design, Gestalt psychology is a pivotal approach. Perceptual factors impact how someone responds or reacts to a particular design, whether it's a work of art in a gallery or an online web design. Harnessing the brain’s pattern-seeking behaviors, artists and designers can create more intuitive and resonating experiences.

Whatever you're creating right now, whether it’s a digital experience, marketing content, artwork, or another creative output, Gestalt psychology can provide additional insights to help you make your design efforts more impactful to audiences.

Product development

Product development teams can leverage Gestalt principles when developing new offerings. Applying these methods, companies can be more precise about choosing colors, textures, and materials to influence consumers’ buying decisions.

Gestalt principles can help you gauge how your target audience will respond to a new product or offering. Launching those new products means advertising, which can also be influenced with the right understanding of Gestalt psychology.

Learning and education

Another important environment for Gestalt psychology is the classroom. Instructors and administrators can tap into this theory of the human brain to create lessons and learning plans that "make sense" to students.

To improve learning and retention, teachers can present concepts that students will naturally look to group or draw associations with. Designing lessons with a whole learning goal, and not just parts, enhances learning capabilities.


In today's digital marketplace, marketing, branding, and advertising online are the prominent methods of audience engagement. Gestalt psychology can help companies better understand how their consumers are interacting with brand elements, ads, and products, too.

From logo designs and ad campaigns to online shopping experiences and website architecture, the Gestalt perception methods can help brands improve consumer engagement and customer perceptions. Understanding how the brain responds to certain elements can help companies leverage some of those subconscious responses to certain stimuli.

In summary

Consider how Gestalt psychology might contribute to your efforts. From marketing products and selling services to improving student understanding or audience reactions, Gestalt psychology still offers insights and applications relevant to our interactions today.


What is the basic notion of Gestalt psychology?

Renowned Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka simplified the framework into one basic notion. It's about the whole rather than the sum of its parts. The human brain perceives individual parts differently from the unified whole. And Gestalt psychology is the study of that phenomenon or the study of human perceptual organization.

Why is Gestalt theory important?

Gestalt theory is essential across a variety of applications. Understanding how people perceive the world is essential in any design industry. It's applicable in work environments such as marketing and human resources. Understanding the complexities of how the brain perceives products and services is critical for businesses looking to authentically engage and inspire responses from target audiences. Social behavior continues to be understood based on the information processing of brain activity described by Gestalt psychology.

What is a real-life example of Gestalt psychology?

Consider putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of considering each piece of the puzzle as an individual entity, most people try to associate how each piece fits with others, in a relationship between the pieces around it, to bring the big picture and finished product to completion.

How is Gestalt psychology used in everyday life?

To imagine how you might use the Gestalt theory in your everyday life, consider reading comprehension. When you read text, you don't perceive each letter as a standalone character. Instead, your brain applies meaning to how each letter contributes to forming a word and, even further, the meaning of a sentence. The larger meaning of the text goes beyond the individual arrangement of letters.

How do Gestalt psychologists explain perception?

When psychologists explain Gestalt psychology to the public, they often break it down into the focus of the whole, not the parts. Perception is the connection between what the eyes see and what the brain then interprets. They say human brains will automatically draw groups, associations, and broader meanings to every experience beyond the individual parts or units that make up those groups.

What are the six Gestalt principles of perception?

Explore the definitions and examples presented above of these five Gestalt psychology principles.

  • Figure-ground

  • Similarity

  • Proximity

  • Continuity

  • Closure

  • Prägnanz (symmetry and order)

What is an example of Gestalt theory of perception?

When you see five colored interlocking circles, you likely see the Olympics logo. You don't just recognize a random assortment of overlapping circles, curved lines, or individual colors. Sure, you eventually recognize the shapes and colors that make up the Olympics symbol. But the concept points to how the human brain first recognizes the Olympics before identifying a series of colored circles.

How does Gestalt psychology affect perception?

The principles of Gestalt psychology describe how people subconsciously group similar elements, spot patterns, and form complex conclusions whenever they perceive anything. From seeing pictures in the clouds or arranging furniture in your living room, perceptions are driven by association and the grouping of individual elements to create a big-picture understanding.

What is Gestalt's contribution to perception and learning?

Gestalt psychology is often applied in learning as a behavioral understanding framework. Teachers and administrators can use the Gestalt method to help students discover relationships between parts of the lesson to better understand the overarching goal of the lesson. Problem-based learning is also rooted in Gestalt principles, allowing students to grasp the whole problem first, then make sense of the steps needed to solve the problem.

What is Gestalt psychology in simple words?

In simple terms, Gestalt psychology is the study of how the human brain processes information. The principles outlined by the methodology break down common responses to external stimuli. Understanding how most people will respond, associate, solve, conclude, and behave based on these principles can continue to serve a greater purpose in education, research, and the workplace.

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