10th June 2024
3 min read

When you look at something long enough, you stop seeing the gaps.

Editor's note: Tomorrow is a public holiday here, and top management has ordered me to give myself a holiday. As such, this is a short piece this week. It's also pertinent as you'll come to see.

Gestalt psychology is a theory of perception that places emphasis on a complete configuration of patterns over individual patterns or components of patterns.

Summed up by the adage: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts", it offers a framework for how we as human perceive these patterns when viewed as a whole.

There are seven Gestaltist principles of 'perceptual organisation':

  • Proximity
  • Similarity
  • Closure
  • Symmetry
  • Common Fate
  • Continuity
  • Past Experience

The application of the Gestalt principles in design is worth getting a handle on, especially for UX design. They can offer some useful insights into how we as humans interpret patterns, and what we infer from those patterns.

Well-executed interfaces that leverage Gestalt principles are more intuitive because they work with our built-in expectations of how visual patterns should behave.

I'm going to focus on one of the principles, Closure.

And not how it relates to design, but rather how it relates to my, and your, work.


The Closure principle states:

When we look at a complex arrangement of visual elements, we tend to look for a single, recognizable pattern.

An example you probably already know is where letters are dropped from words, but because your brain is looking for the pattern of the word as a whole, it ignores the gaps in individual letters.

Th_ qu_ck br_wn f_x j_mps ov_r th_ l_zy d_g

What holds true to words, also holds true to design.

No doubt you've heard about the use of 'negative space'. This is Closure in action.

But Closure can also work against you when you have a problem to solve. Work on any one design long enough, it begins to form a pattern in your mind.

You stop seeing the gaps.

Design Gaps

I've got a project running at the moment that's on a crazy-tight deadline. I pulled something like 14 hours on it last Monday (the joys of working for yourself). By about 9pm I was cross-eyed and couldn't see past a critical assembly issue.

I just couldn't solve it.

(Once you recognise that you can no longer see the problem clearly, it's definitely time to hang up the tools for the day.)

The next morning I sat down and solved it within an hour.

Sitting in front of the computer and banging my head against the problem didn't help me see the gaps in the pattern. Instead, the more I stared at the problem, the more it reinforced the pattern.

The best thing to do is always to step away.

Come back again when the pattern is less familiar.

Taking a look at the problem with fresh eyes will help you see the your design for what it is. It'll help you see the gaps.

Mandatory Rest

I've talked many times about unloading problems from the frontal lobe to let the subconscious solve them for you. It's an effective tactic for greater creative insights, and something that should be encouraged more (and somehow paid for) in creative industries.

At the risk of getting too philosophical, I think that intentionally forgetting the work you're doing is a separate function to letting your subconscious solve problems for you. Yet the two work in tandem.

Doing one, permits the other.

That said, I have far too much work to get on with this week to take the day off tomorrow.

Yet by giving myself some mandatory rest, I'll be purging last week's 'patterns' from my brain and, fingers crossed, my subconscious picks up the slack.

Hopefully it can pick up a whole day's worth.

Time will tell.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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