A Guide to Gestalt Principles

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover what the Gestalt principles are and how graphic designers, educators, and therapists use them in their work.

[Featured Image] Two women look at a laptop computer screen in a bright office decorated with potted plants.

What are the Gestalt principles?

The Gestalt principles are a set of psychological theories that describe human perception, both in the things we see around us and in the experiences of our lives. In modern German, the term “Gestalt” loosely translates into “the way that something is put together” [1].

First explored in a 1923 paper called “Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms” by Max Wertheimer, the Gestalt principles have evolved over time and adapted to different industries. Graphic designers, therapists, and educators use these principles to influence how people view their experiences, perceive the world, learn new things, or interact with marketing. Wertheimer noted instances where humans perceive something differently than it truly is. He also revealed his theory that perception could shape vision and other human senses [2]. Each of these observations became a Gestalt principle. 

Over time, and as people began to apply the Gestalt principles in practical ways, many professionals started following a more streamlined model with four, five, or six principles. Six commonly used Gestalt principles today include similarity, continuity, closure, proximity, figure-ground, and symmetry.

The 6 Gestalt principles


The Gestalt principle of similarity states that humans will naturally group any items we look after spotting similarities between them. We perceive those items as connected to one another. If you are working on a visual design, such as for a website, you might use similarity to visually connect items on the page. Conversely, you may allow certain design elements to stand out by making them different from surrounding areas. For example, you might place a big button with a contrasting color on your website to give users clear directions for signing up for your newsletter. 


According to the principle of continuity, humans perceive items on a curve or line as being connected to one another. Your eye naturally follows curves, even if something intersects to break those curves. Imagine an image of a tree with a curved line behind it to represent the horizon. Even though the tree interrupts the horizon line, you see the line as a connected, fluid object and the tree as a separate object. 


The principle of closure speaks to the phenomenon of human perception in which our brains fill in missing information to complete an image. Sometimes called reification, an example of this is a shape drawn with dashed or dotted lines. You understand these images to be what they are—a circle, diamond, or triangle, for example. In design, this principle allows you to use negative space to give viewers the illusion of an image without needing to create the entire image. 


Humans tend to believe items are connected when we view objects grouped near one another. A simple example is the words on the page you’re currently reading. You understand that the grouped letters are words, and the spaces separate them from each other so you can easily read the text. Graphic designers or educators might use proximity to group items together while designing advertising or educational materials so viewers can see the relationship between them, such as by featuring S’mores in an ad for chocolate bars to drive sales. 


The figure-ground principle refers to humans’ tendency to see a focal point as the subject of a scene and everything else as a background. Have you ever seen a black-and-white image in which the black shapes form a picture while the white shapes form a second picture? The first time you view the image, you will likely focus on one shape or the other instead of seeing both at the same time. That’s because your brain tries to make sense of what it sees according to the figure-ground principle. 

Symmetry or good figure

The law of good figure, also called symmetry or prägnanz, means that your brain will try to make sense of shapes it doesn’t understand in the simplest way possible. For example, when you look at a web page filled with design elements, you will mentally separate those elements into content blocks. A commonly used example of good figure design is to imagine the logo for the Olympics in a black silhouette. Even though the shape itself is a line that curves around and around, your brain still recognizes it for the logo you are familiar with.

Who uses Gestalt principles?

Graphic designers, therapists, and educators are among the primary users of Gestalt principles. Let’s examine these careers more closely to understand how Gestalt principles play a role in their work. 

*Note: Salary information based on August 2023 data from Lightcast™ 

Graphic designers 

Average annual salary: $65,249.18 [3]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 3 percent [4]

Requirements: To become a graphic designer, you will most likely need a bachelor’s degree. 

Graphic designers use Gestalt principles to understand the link between design elements and human perception. Not only can Gestalt principles make graphic designs more appealing and exciting, but they can also influence how we feel about products showcased in an advertisement or an experience on a website. 

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health therapists

Average annual salary: $64,914.60 [5]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 18 percent [6]

Requirements: You will need at least a bachelor’s degree to become a mental health therapist. Some positions require a more advanced degree, such as a master’s degree. Some positions may require certification.  

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health therapists sometimes use Gestalt principles to help their clients focus on how experiences happening right now affect their lives. The Gestalt approach encourages therapists and their clients to understand the context of why those events are happening and how to move forward. Gestalt therapy may also help treat mental health conditions like low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety. 


Average annual salary for elementary school teachers: $67,907.06 [7]

Average annual salary for secondary school teachers: $69,459.79 [8]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 1 percent for elementary [9], 1 percent for high school [10]

Requirements: The requirements to become a teacher vary from state to state but typically include a bachelor’s degree and professional licensing. In some instances, you may need a more advanced degree. 

Educators, either those directly teaching students in a classroom setting or any other education professionals who create lesson plans, may use Gestalt principles to help understand how students perceive the material presented to them. For example, teachers can plan lessons that build off of concepts related to each other. Another example of Gestalt principles in action might be including a “review” section in a lesson plan to show students a larger view of how the material works together (continuity). 

Dive into UX design with Google

If you’d like to learn more about designing with Gestalt principles, consider earning your Google UX Design Professional Certificate on Coursera.

This course can help you prepare for a job as a User Experience (UX) Designer, User Interface (UI) Designer, or Interaction Designer in as little as six months.

After you complete the course, you can apply directly to over 150 companies, including Google, Deloitte, Target, and Verizon.

Article sources


Britannica. “Gestalt Psychology, https://www.britannica.com/science/Gestalt-psychology.” Accessed December 22, 2023.

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.