Monday, June 21, 2010

Connect with your Reader: Writing and Gestalt: Part 1

Resolve Ambiguities, Impose Structure, Make Connections

Text doesn’t exist in isolation. It is part of a page or a computer screen. And the way the words are organized on the page affects the way they are perceived.

In the 1920s a group of German psychologists studying visual perception learned that the human brain seeks patterns. We don’t see objects in isolation; we see them as part of a greater whole, and we make connections between the individual parts. In fact, we often “see” things that aren’t really there because we are trying so hard to create unity and closure.

The psychologists called their studies “gestalt,” which means “unified whole,” and they established a set of principles that are widely used by graphic designers but are also relevant for writers. The next two blog posts will explore some of the key concepts and how they apply to writing.

If some words or objects are placed more closely together than others, they will be perceived as a group. We use this principle frequently by creating a list with bullet points or by placing a box around certain words or phrases.

But sometimes we forget. Subheadings that float at an equal distance from the text above and the text below seem disconnected instead of forming a strong introduction to the following section of text.

When we look at a set of objects, we try to find a way of connecting the diverse elements. If one of the elements is missing, we’ll try and fill the gap.

It is remarkable just how few letters we need in order to work out the meaning of the words: “Th prchas of a hme s lkely th sngle mst mprtant fnancl dcisn y’ll evr mke.” We complete phrases as well: “the more things change . . . .”

We complete partial images as well. We recognize a triangle even if the lines aren’t fully connected.

If a group of words are organized one below the other, our eye will automatically move downwards. If there is an arrow on the page pointing to the right, our eyes move to the right.

As a result, it’s important to ensure that you don’t break the vertical flow of the information columns in a table by adding sub headings and horizontal lines.

If you want to draw attention to a particular section of text, make sure that the graphic design elements are leading the reader’s eye in that direction. These tai chi poses would be ideal as the outstretched arms and legs could lead the reader’s eyes to key words or phrases.

Note: A list of the articles that shaped my thoughts and provided graphic examples will be provided in Part Two.

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