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Gestalt Principles for E‑Learning


Applying Meaning to Design

Our brains seek to understand the big picture. We look for pattern relationships and meaning, and we can use this knowledge to help design better training. Understanding and applying Gestalt principles can help the learner absorb and enjoy the material.

Gestalt means ‘the whole’ or ‘form’ and provides a theory on how the brain perceives information and attempts to classify it into understandable parts.

Visual communication uses lines, shapes, layers, textures, patterns, images, and other design elements to enhance information. The way these elements are presented is an important part of the overall package. Humans look for patterns and seek comfort and safety — in the real world and online. Shape, color, layout, images, and even interaction and movement should work to simplify the material.

Let’s walk through a few of these principles, shall we?

The Figure/Ground relationship is a good example of human psychology. We identify things as being either near or far, which usually translates into important or non-important. If you see a bear up on the mountain, that has very different meaning than a bear right next to you. Perceiving objects in either the foreground or the background helps us classify the content. A common example of this are web pages that use a background color, and all of the other elements sit within blocks or boxes that stand apart — immediately identifying the more important items.


Similarity is another principle. We subconsciously group items that share common features into the same family. This can apply to colors, font, text sizes, image treatments, lines, icons, and more. Think of charts and graphs and how information can be displayed in an almost limitless way, yet by using similarity, we understand what a particular function is for a certain group.


Proximity is another example. The spacing and distance between items, groups, and elements play an important part in how we take in this information. What about the little guy below, is he a part of the club?

Closure is another example of how our brain already analyzes and interprets information we see before we even have time to ‘think’ about it. Closure reflects our tendency to fill in the gaps in order to see the bigger picture, which aligns with our desire to understand the whole. Is there really a mountain in the image below?

There are many more examples of brain-based principles, but the real takeaway is that all design has meaning, and there are visual principles at play that can help us make better artistic decisions. Building good e-learning can be a complex process. Oftentimes, there’s a large amount of complex information that needs to be delivered. Presenting this in a way that helps the learner understand, be comfortable, and see the big picture will help them have a better learning experience.

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