Continuity Principle (Gestalt Theory) – with Examples

continuity principle example illustration and definition

The Gestalt principle of continuity states that when individual elements of a visual image are aligned in a way that suggests a continuous line, they will be perceived as an integrated whole.

So, a string of dots arranged sequentially will lead our eyes to follow that path, be it straight or curved, because it is perceived as all part of the same entity.

Continuity Principle (Gestalt Theory) Explained

When we see an image that displays a series of dots arranged along an invisible line, they will be perceived as part of a whole; an actual line.

dots that form a waving line

That line can be straight or curved. The sequential arrangement creates the perception of a single continuous line.

This is because our eyes prefer to move smoothly in a unified direction rather than in a disjointed manner that involves abrupt turns and sharp angles.

In a similar manner, when two images overlap, the mind will perceive the background image as a whole entity, even though part of it is blocked by the image in the foreground.

The mind’s tendency to impose order and cohesion on visual stimuli facilitates this perception. 

Continuity Examples

  • Take a quick glance at this image; notice how your eye naturally follows a relatively straight path instead of stopping at the intersection and making an abrupt turn.
  • The Amazon logo involves an arrow that starts at “A” and ends at “z.” The viewer’s eye naturally follows the slightly curved path, which also symbolizes the meaning that Amazon sells everything, from “A to Z.”
  • A marching band that plays during the halftime of a US college football game is made-up of lots of individual band members. When aligned in a manner that suggests different letters, we perceive those lines as spelling a word.
  • When glancing at this image of fish swimming, our eye follows the path of least resistance, even though the colors suggest a different path.
  • This illustration of keys on a ring demonstrates that when a continuous line is overlapped by another image, we still perceive the line as a whole.
  • Even though this image is comprised of 6 individual shapes, our eye wants to follow along the smooth curve that flows across the middle.
  • The Coca-Cola logo is another example of a design that incorporates the principle of continuity. The swooping nature of the first letter “C” naturally guides the eye to the second letter “C” in the next word. The underscore line across the bottom also helps take the viewer’s eye across the entire image.
  • Professional photographers are masters of Gestalt principles. This photo presented by Taya Ivanova demonstrates the power of continuity to take the viewer’s eye diagonally across the image.
  • The Guggenheim Museum is a marvel of simplicity in design and an example of incorporating the Gestalt principle of continuity to take hold of the viewers eye at first glance and guide across the entire structure.
  • Interior design is an artistic form of expression that is not always fully recognized. However, many designers understand the power of continuity in creating visual impact through symmetry or circular flow. Take a look at the second photo displayed on the Hatchcock Designs website.

The Gestalt Theory Principles

There are several other Gestalt principles that describe how the mind perceives visual stimuli. Each principle describes how individual elements are interpreted in the mind.

The well-known saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” illustrates the fundamental premise of Gestalt theory.

The Gestalt movement emphasized the construction of the larger whole in perception and a broader level of analysis.

The fundamental principles are:

  • Proximity: Individual elements of a visual stimulus that are close together are perceived as being related.
  • Continuity: Individual elements that are arranged in a manner in which they could be connected by a smooth and continuous line are followed by the eye and perceived as a whole.
  • Similarity: Elements that are alike tend to be grouped together.
  • Connectedness: Individual elements that are connected are perceived as more related than elements that are not connected.
  • Closure: If an image contains missing parts, perceptual processes tend to fill in the gaps to complete the image and make it whole.

Related Concept: Convergence in Psychology

Case Studies of the Law of Continuity

1. Scatterplots and Gestalt Theory

Interpreting multi-dimensional graphs can be challenging. Many researchers try to simplify this process by applying different colors and shapes to their graphs. This may help the viewer more easily discern classes and clusters of a large number of data points.

Scatterplots are one common type of graph that display such complex results.

Lu et al. (2019) created a unique enhancement to the typical scatterplot by introducing “a new means for visual encoding” called Winglets” (p. 770).

Winglets are two short lines that emerge from each data point to create a more complete visual image.

According to Lu et al. (2019):

“The Closure principle, together with other Gestalt principles of perceptual grouping such as Good Continuation that Winglets form in close proximity, aid the viewer to perform a mental completion of the clusters…” (p. 770).

When university students were presented with either regular scatterplots or scatterplots enhanced with Winglets,

“The addition of Winglets shortened the overall task completion time and reduced the overall error count” (p. 777).

2. Tourism Logos and Gestalt Principles

Professional graphic designers are well-versed in Gestalt principles. Afterall, their occupation is all about how people process visual images. Gestalt principles can be found in everything from infographics to logos.

Rodriguez et al. (2013) were interested in examining the role of Gestalt principles in the perception of tourism logos that represent various countries.

The researchers collected 154 logos from the tourism websites of 116 countries. Those logos were then scored in terms of six Gestalt principles: similarity, proximity, figure-ground, closure, assimilation, and of course, continuity.

Two-hundred undergraduate students then rated the logos on two dimensions: how well it represented its country, and if they would like to travel to that country one day.

The ratings revealed that “Logos high in Gestalt traits registered the highest intention to visit among the respondents” (p. 101).

Moreover, “…logos high in Gestalt attributes indeed influenced the ease with which people can recognize the nations the logos stand for” (p. 102).

Practical Applications

The principle of continuity has several applications.

1. Graphic Design

The most obvious application of continuity is in graphic design. The principle of continuity can create a strong visual impact in interior design, photography, and architecture.

These are all artistic endeavors that involve visual expression in some form or another. Whenever visual stimuli are key to the human experience, the principle of continuity will play a substantial role. 

Thus, when sketching the first draft of a building or interior, it is important to take a step back and envision how and where the viewer’s eye will become transfixed at first glance.

The question we ask, then, is: How can that knowledge inform the design to create not only a functional structure, but one that has an experiential impact on those that use it?

2. Writing a CV

To stretch the meaning of continuity a bit, consider how this concept can be applied to a resume or CV. Traditional formats are quite boring. The content is presented horizontally in the form of one line after the other.

So, consider a format that is more visually interesting. For example, these samples present information in a segmented section off to one side in a vertical box.

This creates an immediate impression on the person looking at the document. When that person is a potential employer and they have been looking at countless resumes, it’s good to have one that stands out.  

Conclusion

Continuity occurs when our eye naturally follows a linear or slightly curved path across a visual stimulus. This is an automatic tendency when scanning an image.

This means that if an image contains a large number of individual elements, those that are aligned along a smooth and continuous path are going to be followed.

Examples of continuity can be seen in logos that create a visual flow such as the smile across the bottom of the Amazon logo or the curved font in Coca-Cola.

Continuity also means that when we are presented with two overlapping images, the one in the background will still be interpreted as an existing whole.

Even though part of the image is blocked, the mind will add coherence.

As it turns out, this seemingly simple principle of visual perception plays a crucial role in how we experience interior design, marvel at architecture, and gaze at compelling photographs.

References

Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt psychology. London, England: Lund Humphries.

Köhler, W. (1938). Physical Gestalten. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pp. 17–54). London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1920)

Lu, M., Wang, S., Lanir, J., Fish, N., Yue, Y., Cohen-Or, D., & Huang, H. (2019). Winglets: Visualizing association with uncertainty in multi-class scatterplots. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 26(1), 770-779.

Rodriguez, L., Asoro, R. L., Lee, S., & Sar, S. (2013). Gestalt principles in destination logos and their influence on people’s recognition and intention to visit a country. Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies, 3(1), 91.

Roth, L. M. (2018). Understanding architecture: Its elements, history, and meaning. Routledge.

Turner, J., & Schomberg, J. (2016). Inclusivity, gestalt principles, and plain language in document design. The Library with the Lead Pipe.

Wagemans, J., Elder, J. H., Kubovy, M., Palmer, S. E., Peterson, M. A., Singh, M., & von der Heydt, R. (2012). A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: I. Perceptual grouping and figure–ground organization. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1172–1217. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029333

Wallace, D. S., West, S. W. C., Ware, A., & Dansereau, D. F. (1998). The effect of knowledge maps that incorporate gestalt principles on learning. The Journal of Experimental Education, 67(1), 5-16.

Wertheimer, M. (1938). Gestalt theory. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (1-11). New York, NY: Harcourt.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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