Simplicity, symmetry, pattern and beyond: Scrollie Anita McCollough thinks about the conscious use of Gestalt principles in content design.

Effortless content

Like every content designer, when I get down to reading something new for work, I do the usual first thing and seek common themes and patterns. From the outset, I’m fairly sure that it’s within my gift to achieve structure and readability for the end user and that if I put in the graft, I WILL get to the essence of what the original author was hoping to communicate. But I don’t really ever analyse my processes and practices. Like most, I just get on with it.

In the first week of lockdown, when work went a bit quiet, shall we say, I decided I needed to interrogate a few of my dearly held convictions about the usefulness of what I do for a living. I began to face up to the fact that there are 1) now lots of content designers out there that do it well – possibly even better than me, and 2) there are some content design tenets I scarcely ever challenge and that’s pretty much because there’s never been time.

I realised I couldn’t do much about 1), but 2) well, that was now something else…

I remembered (again) about Gestalt

The first thought that went through my ‘resting’ mind was that I don’t tend to think much about the design side of my work. I’ve seen myself limit ‘design’ activity to prioritising information, establishing hierarchies, hypothesising user journeys, and cleverly signposting the essentials. But it can’t be just about that, I concluded. We’re not ‘writers for the web’, we’re content designers. I decided to try to reclaim my design fundamentals with a long overdue dip into Gestalt theory.

Gestalt is central to UX design not least because its principles play to how, in a single glance, the human brain rapidly computes and identifies options. The foundations of Gestalt are now well-entrenched in the everyday principles that UX designers follow: ‘closure’, ‘proximity’ and ’continuation’; ‘balance’, ‘affordance’, ‘emergence’, and ‘embedded meaning’. Ever keen to see things from a different angle, what can those ‘laws’ offer to content designers, I wondered?

Constantly seeking order: the human mind is ahead of the game

We know the user wants it straight and unequivocal, but what’s interesting is that they’re capable of meeting us halfway. So maybe our striving for usability doesn’t have to mean loads of effort. I learnt that the human mind is determined to make sense out of disorder, so we can harness that wish to discern visual hints about what is ultimately ‘orderable’. I learnt that we’re naturally compulsive in that respect because we love balance and we love patterns.

Gestalt holds that the human mind is just mad about placing things logically and making relationships. It means we’re happy when positive results come without us even trying for them. Maybe it’s a bit like the gratification we get when we see a punch-line coming or ‘get’ an in-joke that leaves everyone else baffled? This is where the theory started to get my full attention.

Could it be that by not filling in all the gaps, we may have the power to tap into our users’ pleasure zone(s)? Was it possible that we don’t even have to be writing about something people particularly want to read, the message can still hit the spot? That’s perhaps when we’ll really succeed in communicating, I mused. Might it be that consuming content could be rendered truly effortless

One note of caution here, I said to myself. We can take simplicity to extremes and that won’t work. If we go too far down the minimalist route, surely we risk the rejection that comes with confusion. That’s why we ought to be aware that it’s possible to ‘peel too much away’. Here I’m using the words of the guru Janne Jul Jensen. Dutifully, I offer one of her examples. She says a button that people are supposed to click should look (and read) like a button. So that little bit of dropped shadow or whatever, may actually be fulfilling a function. It may not be attractive, but it should remain. Yet I digress.

There truly is no fighting this, so we should use it

It’s from Gestalt that we get the familiar ‘rule’ that a bit of air around text on a web page is not wasted space. Now I begin to have a better idea why. It’s because it serves a sure and incontrovertible cognitive purpose, making it easier to see groupings and allowing the unconscious to make a compelling, even enjoyable, sum of the parts. By making groupings of the same types of things in my content design, I’ll also be supporting our ability to recall what we’ve read (and the context in which we saw it). In these scenarios, less is surely more.

But it’s not all about objects. By organising content using a consistent background colour, I can place random textual elements and the user will understand that they ‘belong’ together, because they have an apparent affinity with a particular tone or shade. You see this a lot in retailers’ websites, but perhaps not enough in other online contexts where we tend to be cautious about using colour, not quite understanding its use and being wary of its power.

Content designers hear UX folks talk about ‘affordance’, the one that relates to how we make an immediate ‘visual assessment of intended use.’ Another important one for us is ‘emergence’ which means people don’t need to be presented with very much information at all to see that, say, a disconnected pattern of dots actually produces the image of a dog, or a giraffe (or whatever). See my reference to a familiar panda below.

But let’s just backtrack a little, because I’ve remembered what it was that really got me going in this vein. It was three years ago that I attended the Lavacon content strategy conference in Dublin. One of the keynote speakers there, in May 2017, was Janne Jul Jensen. She’s a Danish software designer who not only understands deeply the role of the Gestalt psychology in user interface design, she wants all of us, across the full spectrum of digital disciplines, to know about it too.

Janne’s presentations, and she’s a regular on the circuit, encourage better appreciation of just how much ‘work’ the brain does in a split second when faced with any visual imagery. Her insight gave me some vital clues about how I might become much more adept at presenting content for busy users. Although I went to the lectures about Gestalt Theory at art college, it wasn’t until I heard Janne Jul Jensen talk that I got the point of it. I did a mental ‘file and don’t forget’, then promptly proceeded to forget. Until now.

It’s more than a heritage thing

Advertising creatives, back in the 1930s and beyond, they knew all this. They harnessed the principles of Gestalt with assurance. An example is this 1937 poster. The message is clear – go to Oval Station if you want the Oval cricket ground! It’s there in the fuzzy outline of the illustration. The London Transport logo is also textbook Gestalt. No words are needed because those little blocks of colour say it all.

The world of branding and advertising is still at it, leaving things out as opposed to cramming them in. They’re letting us find the messages. Just think about the iconic FedEx ident with that ‘hidden’ arrow, or the World Wildlife Fund panda that isn’t anything close to a complete outline drawing, but we know what it is. We get the picture.

In summary, I believe that ‘invariance’, ‘embedded meaning’, ‘proximity’, ‘closure’; these obscurely-worded Gestalt Laws, don’t have to remain the preserve of the commercial artist or the UX designer. I’ve heard now that by adopting the principles of Gestalt, we can at the very least avoid delaying or confusing our users. Might that really be the case? In my wildest imagination, I hazard the view that by embracing Gestalt, we no longer have to even ‘guide’ our users. Instead, we can walk side-by-side with them, taking in the view.

Certainly it’s time to reinterpret Gestalt and put it into practice in increasingly inventive user-centric ways. I’m determined to try this with content in future – not just to do more with less, but to feel I can suggest fresh visually-led content design solutions. Perhaps no one, including me, will believe they can work until we see them in action, first in prototype and then in the public domain. Wish me luck.

But before that, and well into yet another week of lockdown, I wonder if I ought to be trying my hand at sketching a few corporate logos. Just to see what emerges – or takes shape.

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Gestalt theories of perception are based on human nature being inclined to understand objects as an entire structure rather than the sum of its parts. (Source: Wikipedia)

@JanneJulJensen has put together some excellent presentations that speak to content designers obliquely, but powerfully, on this topic. Indeed, one of her talks is titled: Why UX is not only the responsibility of the UX designer. Watch a YouTube video of her talk, The Cognitive Abilities of the Human Mind.