Visual Rhetoric: Gestalt Principles

In the last article, we examined the analytical Moore and Fitz (1993), who are technical communicator scholars specializing in visual design, and explained the importance of Gestalt in Using Gestalt Theory to Teach Document Design and Graphics. Moore and Fitz (1993) quote Max Werheimer, a psychologist and one of the developers of the Gestalt theory: “they believe people perceive a structure of components that they treat as a whole (p.392).” Have you ever wondered why a document perceives to be organized and inviting to read while others appear chaotic or messy and difficult to follow? According to Moore and Fitz (1993), “Gestalt theory tries to understand how viewers perceive wholes in groups of individual elements (p. 392).” Gestalt was not intended as a tool of persuasion, but rather descriptive; a means to perceive “structures and patterns (p. 392).” However, the principles of Gestalt may also be used as rhetorical tools to influence the way a viewer reads a document. The key principles are: figure-ground, symmetry, closure, proximity, good continuation and similarity.

Figure-Ground Segregation is the visual separation of foreground and background. This principle can be applied to form clarity and emphasis in a document as well as to instill hierarchy by directing a viewer where to begin. Design elements such as typography, color, images, or shapes that stand out from the background are more noticeable and can help lead the viewer through the document.

Similarity occurs when elements on a page have a similar appearance such as size, shape, color or value. They are therefore perceived as groups, or referenced with similar ideas and subject matter. One example is the use of text; headlines that are treated the same by using type size, font, and style can create consistency and give clues as to how information is laid out in a document. Similarity can establish clarity and conciseness, therefore making the document a pleasant reading experience for the viewer.

Proximity refers to the arrangement of elements on a page. The perception of the document, whether organized or chaotic, can be controlled by the proximity of text and graphics. When several items are on a page, it is important for the reader to understand which text belongs to what image, or which headline belongs to what body copy. Captions referring to specific images, for example, should be viewed as one unit so as not to confuse the reader. If the document presents an unpleasant reading experience the message will be lost, making the document ineffective.

Good Continuation can be a path or continuous line directing the eye beyond a visual area, allowing the viewer to fill in the gaps in their own minds. In terms of document design, good continuation may be demonstrated with the use of grids, typography, color or graphics. For example, a website designed with the same menu bar at the top of every page (the “Home” button, for instance) located in the same place from page to page creates good continuation, therefore inspiring confidence for the viewer to know where to look.

Closure is about “drawing conclusions,” according to Andy Rutledge, author of Design + View website. He explains, “When presented with less than the full picture, we attempt to employ the principle of closure to fill in missing information and form a complete image or idea based on common or easily recognizable patterns from our past experience and understanding.” He continues to explain that intuition and past experience allow us to recognize incomplete shapes. For example, a rectangle missing a corner will still be perceived as a rectangle. In document design, closure can be implied with negative space to complete or segregate an idea or topic. Columns of text, for instance, formed by the surrounding white space allow the reader to view the text vertically opposed to horizontally, thereby reinforcing the direction or hierarchy of information.

Symmetry is often referred to as balance, meaning the equal distribution of objects divided by a central point of axis. In regards to document design, symmetry creates the perception of stability, structure and consistency, which adds to the tone and ethos of a document. Moore and Fritz (1993), among others, believe that an asymmetrical design of a document will confuse readers and make them feel uneasy and lost (p.391). Gary Bastoky (2010), a user experience designer, argues that symmetry and balance are not the same and that balance can be achieved symmetrically or asymmetrically. He believes that symmetry can sometimes make a document look stale or boring, where asymmetry adds a more dynamic viewing experience. According to Bastoky, “Asymmetrical layouts can achieve equilibrium as well, but their tenser, more dramatic form of balance depends on careful manipulation to compensate visually for differences in the size, position, and value of major elements (2010).” Creating an effective asymmetrical document is a more difficult approach, but it may add to the aesthetic value. Either way, the rhetorical situation should direct the design decision.

Consider a few of gestalt principles demonstrated in the Yahoo! Travel website (pictured above):

Figure-ground segregation is demonstrated by the large photo of Jerusalem set against the cloud photo in the background. Good continuation is established with the yellow box containing “Find your price.” The box is designed with rounded corners at the top and not on the bottom leading you to believe there is more information to be accessed within this space. Similarity is demonstrated by the design of the items in the top menu bar, as well as the tabs in the yellow box. A consistent design of these elements adds to the clarity and organization to the document. The proximity of the text “Jerusalem, Israel” creates a relationship to the small map in the lower right corner of the page.



Being surrounded by mass media on a daily basis, visual communicators are responsible for obtaining the necessary resources and skills to compose and analyze effective visual messages. This series of articles introduced an understanding of visual rhetoric by exploring the rhetorical use of visuals and visual arguments, as well as design tools for visual analysis. As we learned, visual rhetoric refers to persuasive messages using visual language. It is critical for visual communicators to obtain the necessary skills and design tools to compose and analyze visual messages effectively. This can be accomplished by the use of text, images, and layout while considering the six visual cognates and gestalt principles.

The six visual cognates are: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone and ethos. They are a means to consider the rhetorical situation of a document, ensuring that the message is communicated correctly and directly to the target audience.

The Gestalt principles are: figure-ground, symmetry, closure, proximity, good continuation and similarity. They offer a vocabulary for effective discourse in visual analysis as well as provide a set of design tools to compose visual messages.


We are inundated with visual messages everyday via television commercials, billboards, magazines, and surfing the Internet, just to name a few. We are also challenged by rapid advancements in technology, particularly smartphones and tablet computers such as the iPad, allowing everyone to access visual information at the touch of a finger. Visual communicators are responsible for the design of such artifacts including posters, advertisements, annuals reports, Apps, and infographics. Understanding visual rhetoric, what makes a visual argument, and what a rhetorical situation consists of, visual communicators have additional resources and skills to analyze and evaluate effective design. As visual communicators, we are also responsible for obtaining the necessary resources and skills to compose and analyze effective visual messages.

By Randy Fox
Published February 11, 2013
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