The law of proximity states that individual elements that are placed close to each other are perceived as belonging together.
We can use this principle to create concept maps and sort ideas in our minds, create visually appealing logos that also convey meaning, and ascertain meaning in art and cultural texts.
Law of Proximity (Gestalt Principle) Explained
Proximity refers to the fact that individual elements (such as dots in a picture) that are arranged close to each other will be perceived as grouped together.
So, when looking at the image below, we see the dots on the left as belonging to one group, and the dots on the right as belonging to a separate group.
This positioning of individual elements in close proximity to one another indicates that there is a common, shared relationship between them. This leads to a perceived “wholeness” of those individual elements.
Law of Proximity Examples
- Stars clustered together are seen as a formation in the sky, leading to their interpretation as star signs in astrology.
- Letters that are grouped closely together are perceived as forming a word. Proximity is a fundamental requirement for the written word!
- In Braille, raised dots that form a word are positioned closely together with a space in between the next set of raised dots. This indicates the presence of two distinct words.
- In ad design, information regarding product features are grouped together, while key selling points, descriptive text, and warranty information each have placement elsewhere. Each area is separated by white space to help the viewer perceive distinctiveness.
- Putting a blank space between paragraphs in a report or academic paper helps the reader understand that the next set of sentences will present a new idea.
- Table and chairs in the dining room are placed near each other and referred to as “dining room table and chairs.” If placed in the kitchen, their label is changed to “kitchen table and chairs.” Each grouping consists of the same items (table and chairs), but they are perceived as distinct groups when positioned in separate areas.
- People that sit near each other in a section of a stadium are perceived as cheering for the same team.
- When watching football (U.S. soccer) on T.V., commentators will show a graphic of the field with icons of the same position placed near each other. The fullback icons are closer to each other than they are to the midfielder icons. This makes the player positions very clear.
- In website design, content that is related is set close together. Empty space helps the reader distinguish it from other content.
- Restaurant menus place items in the same categories (appetizers, main meals, desserts) together.
- Textbook chapters often present information that is distinct from the main subject in separate boxes on the page to help the reader organize the content more efficiently.
The Gestalt Theory Principles
The Gestalt theory principles refer to how human beings perceive visual stimuli.
Gestalt theory was formulated by Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka. Their perspective was in direct contrast to the structuralist orientation popular in psychology at the time.
The Gestalt movement offered the study of psychology an additional approach to understanding people, their thoughts, feelings, and cognitive processes.
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.
Case Studies of the Proximity Principle
1. Knowledge Maps And Gestalt Principles
A knowledge map is a graphical representation of how concepts and information are related. Teachers often use knowledge maps, or concept maps, to help students understand how information is organized and highlight interconnectedness.
Wallace et al. (1998) investigated the effectiveness of applying the Gestalt principles of proximity and similarity to knowledge maps to enhance learning.
Students were randomly assigned to receive instruction via text, unenhanced maps, or enhanced maps. The enhanced maps included added elements of color, shaping, and groupings that corresponded to the Gestalt principles of proximity and similarity.
Two weeks later, all students were administered a free recall test.
“Students who had studied enhanced maps recalled more information than the students who had studied unenhanced maps or text. The results suggest that the use of color, shape, and proximity facilitated learning by improving the organization of information” (p. 5).
2. Tourism Logos And Gestalt Principles
The logo represents an organization and is often the first opportunity to create a brand impression. Not only is it important for commercial products and services, but for tourism as well.
Most logos incorporate several principles of Gestalt theory in the design. For instance, the principle of continuity allows the logo to appear somewhat abstract, while also conveying valuable information.
Rodriguez et al. (2013) collected 154 logos from the official tourism websites of 116 countries. Next, two graduate students with backgrounds in visual communication rated each logo according to six Gestalt principles: similarity, continuity, figure-ground, closure, assimilation, and proximity.
Over 200 undergraduate students rated the logos in terms of whether the logo represented its country and if they would like to visit one day.
“Logos high in gestalt traits registered the highest intention to visit among the respondents … logos high in gestalt attributes indeed influenced the ease with which people can recognize the nations the logos stand for” (p. 102).
3. The Phi Phenomenon
The Phi Phenomenon refers to an optical illusion. It occurs when lights that are arranged in close proximity to each other are sequentially blinked on and off. This creates the illusion of movement.
This illusion was first discovered by Max Wertheimer in 1912 during his research on perception. He was experimenting by rapidly presenting a line on one side of the screen, then rapidly presenting it on the opposite side.
During his questioning of research participants, many reported seeing a straight line that moved rapidly from one side to the other.
He concluded that the human mind is naturally wired to see patterns in elements positioned in proximity to each other. When there is a gap, the mind naturally fills that in to create a more meaningful whole.
4. Motion Pictures and Cartoon Animation
An extension of the phi phenomenon explains how we interpret visual information in the form of movies and animation. These are among the most popular forms of entertainment today. It all started with simple images being presented in rapid succession to create the optical illusion of movement.
This is referred to as “persistence of vision.” If you stop and think about the term “motion…picture,” it reveals the technological secret behind this amazing form of entertainment.
The movies that we watch today are comprised of a series of rapidly changing still photos.
In the early days of motion pictures, there was debate as to how to explain this illusion. Eventually, research confirmed the early Gestalt theorists’ reasoning that this phenomenon is a result of perceptual processes in the brain.
5. The IBM Logo
One of the best modern-day examples of the principle of proximity of visual stimuli is the IBM logo. As seen in the image below, the logo is comprised of numerous horizontal lines.
The lines are equally spaced vertically, but the blue spaces in between certain areas create the illusion of letters.
Unfortunately, due to copyright reasons, I can’t present the logo here – but look it up on an image search to get a clear idea!
Of course, the logo also contains other characteristics that help create the illusion of letters. The curvature of the spaces between the letters helps the mind interpret the image based on information already stored in memory.
The blue spaces that span horizontally and straight across the top and bottom also facilitates the perception of letters.
The Gestalt principle of proximity can be applied to everyday life.
1. Designing your CV
When constructing a resume/CV, making sure the content is easy to read is very important. The CV is your first opportunity to create a good impression.
Incorporate the principle of proximity by making sure that statements regarding extracurricular activities, internships, and academic pursuits are clearly segmented on the page.
There should be enough white space between subheadings that the CV appears well-organized and easy to read. Take a look here for examples of formats that use proximity and other Gestalt principles to create a clean and organized look.
2. Concept Mapping while Studying
When studying for an exam, make a knowledge/concept map of each lecture’s content.
Incorporate both proximity and similarity to help organize the material. For example, grouping related subject material together (proximity) and in the same color (similarity).
Add material from the textbook as well so the connection between lecture and the textbook is clear.
Gestalt theory prescribes several principles of perception that allow us to better understand the processing and interpretation of visual stimuli.
The theory was developed to contrast the predominant theoretical perspective of structuralists which analyzes psychological phenomenon from its simplest and most rudimentary elements.
Gestalt principles have proved quite informative. They play a key role in the creation of graphic designs, including the logo of corporations and tourism departments.
Perhaps most impressive of all, the principle of proximity has played an especially crucial role in the evolution of motion pictures and animation.
These are among the most popular forms of entertainment in history which would have never developed if not for the mind’s tendency to apply meaning to stimuli presented in proximal sequence.
Görgen, İ. (2008). The effects of differences in the configurations of knowledge maps (k-map). Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 33, 157-176.
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)
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.
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.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.