Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Connect with your Reader: Writing and Gestalt: Part 2

Resolve Ambiguities, Impose Structure, Make Connections

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.

This is the second of two blog posts (Gestalt for Writers: Part One) about applying gestalt principles to written text.

If three sections of text are in blue ink and one section is in red, two things happen. First of all, readers will assume that the blue sections are related because they look the same. Secondly, the section in red will stand out and be perceived as more important because it’s different and because red symbolizes urgency.

We are very aware when designs are symmetrical and asymmetrical. In fact, we crave symmetry. A doorway with a column on only one side would look odd. However, asymmetry is a powerful tool for creating movement and energy.

A uniform layout (e.g. placement of headings, length of paragraphs, font) creates symmetry in a written document, making it easier to read. But breaking the symmetry with callout boxes, bolded words, or a change in layout will grab the reader’s attention and add energy.

The search for patterns is a search for simplicity. We’re trying to make sense of a complex array of information. Again, there needs to be a balance between a simple layout that is boring and a complex layout that is busy and confusing. The following image is complex, but the repetition of certain colours and the careful placement of the various elements ensure balance.

Jump to Conclusions
The challenge for content designers is to use gestalt principles strengthen key messages but to make sure that viewers don’t jump to the wrong conclusions.

“The spatial arrangement of text, that is, the use of blank space, the arrangement of rows and columns, and the juxtaposition of words and graphics can influence the way readers see the text. The document designer needs to create these spatial arrangements in order to lead the readers to see the text in specific ways. Leading readers and helping them to follow the order and importance of information efficiently and effectively is, in essence, the overall goal of the document designer.” (Gary Bastoky)

Additional Resources
The following articles shaped my thoughts and provided graphic examples:

Andy Rutledge – blog posts on gestalt and graphic design:
     Figure Ground Relationships
     Proximity, Connectedness, Continuation
     Common Fate

Fundamentals of Document Design for the Technical Writer, Gary Bastoky

Before and After magazine – Gestalt Theory: Equilibrium

Gestalt Theory in Visual Screen Design – A New Look at an Old Subject

Jeremy Bolton – gestalt principles and logos
     The Law of Similarity and Anomaly
     The Law of Closure

In addition, Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds has a section on gestalt.

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