Unity and Gestalt Theory

This chapter includes information about:

  • Definitions of unity and Gestalt Theory in visual design
  • Principles of Gestalt Theory with illustrations

Visual design encompasses many foundational elements and principles. While a more extensive exploration of design theory is beyond the scope of this course, this video by Matt Greenwood provides a brief look at many related concepts.

In thinking about your projects for this course, two theories are most important to consider: Unity and Gestalt Theory.


Unity is the sense of cohesiveness and consistency created when all elements of a design work together. Visual unity is achieved when elements in your design share observable harmony as perceived by your audience. All parts belong together. Intellectual unity is when the appearance and the meaning of all the elements share a common and cohesive theme.

For your Unit 1 project to be successful, it must achieve both visual unity and intellectual unity.

Gestalt Theory

Gestalt Theory (prounounced gesh-STALT) is a psychological theory, which originated in Germany during the early 20th century and explains how the mind interprets and organizes visual information to create unity and meaning. A central concept of Gestalt Theory is that our mind seeks patterns and tends to group visual elements to establish a unified whole. According to this theory, when we see an image consisting of numerous elements, our mind forms an impression that is derived from the individual objects, but has a separate meaning based on the unified whole. This theory is the origin of the common phrase, “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” (Ware, 2005)

The four principles of Gestalt Theory most relevant to visual design and your projects in this course are the laws of proximity, similarity, continuation and closure. Each of these laws allows us to predict how an image will be interpreted based on specific characteristics of its visual elements.


The law of Proximity simply describes the phenomenon that when things are close together, the brain perceives them as belonging together.


Continuation explains how positioning elements in lines creates a sense of movement.


The law of Similarity states that visual elements that share similar characteristics are perceived as belonging together. Shape, color, size, and texture are some of the many ways to establish similarity between visual elements.


The concept of Closure describes the phenomenon of when the brain is shown part of something and tends to “fill in the blanks” to establish a persistent visual connection.


Gestalt principles can be used in a visual composition to create hierarchy, meaning that the viewer is guided toward the most important elements. Hierarchy is critical in user-centered design and storytelling, because it gives your audience a clear entry point. The relationships and contrast between elements establishes hierarchy.

Additional Resources

There are a number of online resources that describe the visual theories of Gestalt in more detail. Please note that some of these resources focus on additional aspects of Gestalt Theory beyond the four described above.

ARTICLE: Gestalt Concept & Interpretation

PRESENTATION: The Gestalt Laws of Perception (luisaepv, Slideshare)

VIDEO: Gestalt Theory for Graphic Designers (Focal Online, YouTube)

PRESENTATION: Unity and Gestalt (Jacques de Beaufort, Slideshare)