Friday, August 1, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 30, Seeing Unity (Gestalt)

Download Episode 30

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about Unity. And when we began this discussion last episode, we said that unity is a goal of composition - unity describes how a multiplicity of elements combine to achieve one efffect. And this concept hearkens back to the fundmental definition of design we layed down in our earliest episodes, when we said that Design is the process of creating order out of chaos, as we fashion many disparate elements into an ordered unit.

But how does Unity work? How is it that one design is perceived to be more unified than another? And that's the key phrase, "perceived to be." Because this discussion lands us squarely in the territory of perception. And it's all perception, when you think of it. Our designs are nothing but bits of paper and ink, or illuminated pixels. It's what our minds of make of those bits and pieces that matters. And while we may not entirely understand how our minds work, we know we can aid cognition by understanding some principles of perception.

So, today I'd like to introduce the ideas behind what is called Gestalt Theory. And don't let the terminology scare you, Gestalt Theory is concerned with how our minds connect the dots, so to speak, forming a coherent whole out of incomplete parts. A puzzle with missing pieces still provides enough relational and contextual clues for us to discern that emergent whole.

And you may recall that we touched on this idea somewhat in the episode on Shape, when I said that this was a cognitive imperative, the way our minds compulsively and continuously make meaning out of stimuli around us, even connecting random things. And I can't help being reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's Take The Money and Run, when he tells his analyst that the ink blot looks like two elephants making love to a male glee club. But I digress.

So, what Gestalt theory does is make much of context and relationships. When it comes to meaning, it's all in the WAY we put things together. Where is the element? What's next to it? Does this element stand alone or is it part of a group? These are the kinds of questions that are important.

One Gestalt analogy is how we can take a collection of individual musical notes and organize them as a unified melody. We can even transpose it to another key, which makes us use a different set of notes, yet we still recognize the same melody. The unity is persistent because the relationship of the notes has not changed. The intervals and duration and sequence are still the same. So, carrying this idea over to design, it makes us think in compositional terms, because the unity that we hope to create on the page has altogether to do with context and relationships.

But more on that next time, I think we have enough to chew on for today.

For now, let me remind you that a transcript of today's show can be found at Music is by If you're enjoying this series, don't forget to click subscribe in iTunes, so that you're automatically notified of new installments. And while you're there, consider leaving a comment at the profile page, which will encourage others to tune in, and I'll thank you in advance for doing so. And I thank you for tuning in today.

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