Thursday, December 4, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 35, Proximity and Alignment

Download Episode 35

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

Today, we'll bring an end to this exploration of the principles of perception, also known as the Gestalt rules by discussing Proximity and Alignment.

Now there's more to Gestalt than what we've covered in this series, but I trust this has given you a foothold on the topic. But let's get right to it.


Proximity is something we understand intuitively. It requires no explanation when we see it. If we're at a party, we'll see certain kinds of people around us. Some will be standing by themselves with drinks in their hands, looking around. Others will congregate in groups of two or three or five or six, and we "get it." Those that are standing close together form a group. Even when they stop talking and interacting, we still see them as a group by virtue of their proximity.

Or think of high school. There were groups of jocks. Groups of freaks. There were loners. Maybe there were gangs when you went to school. And we perceive these persons, we comprehend these individual elements, if you will, based on their relationships and context. They are either separate and individual, or they're perceived as part of a group. And it's just like our compositions.

If we have a more or less even distribution of shapes or elements, they all tend to stand alone. They're not in proximity to anything in particular. But when we bring elements together as a cluster or collective or group, we view them as a new thing. Something bigger.

And this helps us comprehend our environment. Complicated clusters of elements get simplified in our minds as one thing. They are that group or cluster, and this frees our minds from having to deal with them as individual units to be inventoried in our brain individually. You can mentally batch process the whole lot of them.

This is important to understand in our designs. If we don't use proximity to our advantage, then our audience has to mentally sort through all that we put before them. On the other hand, when we put like things together, as a logical group, we've put convenient handles on them. Now all those things are glanceable. You can take them all in at once.

Some examples. Think of web pages. Often we see various tiers of navigation. One group of links relate to global navigation, links like "home" or "about us" or "contact us". Another set of links might be grouped according to related product categories, like at Amazon, where they group "movies, music, and games" as one link, as opposed to another labeled "apparel, shoes $ jewelry". It's this grouping that enable us to cope with all the information. It gives it logic and order and hierarchy. We can put convenient cognitive handles on a bunch of stuff at once.
There's many more examples that I'm sure you can come up with on your own because proximity is so intuitive. The trick is to think logically as you order groups of elements in your compositions. You're really using it as a strategy to streamline your audience's comprehension of what you've set before them.

And, finally, I want to touch on Alignment today. Although I'll probably go into it in more detail at a later date.

Alignment is simply the technique of organizing elements by lining them up. When we look at a page, we don't see visible lines, but we do notice that headline, and subhead, and bodycopy and related image are usually on the same vertical axis. At least this is usually the case. Or there are enough elements lined up on that invisible vertical line for us to sense their relatedness.

Or we may see shapes that organized according to a central axis. We might call them center justified. Or the left edges all line up. (This is also called ragged right). Or it's the right edges that all line up (and this is alternatively called ragged left.) The difference among these examples is edge alignment versus center alignment. And all of us have at least some experience with this in this because we've played with those justification buttons in programs like Microsoft Word.

Earlier still, we might have been the kid who always had the toys scattered randomly on the floor. It was hard to see the relationship among our hotwheels or star wars action figures as a result.

On the other hand, we might have been the kid who neatly lined up the toys on our shelves. Our Smurf figures looked orderly and related. They were aligned AND grouped in proximity to one another, and it probably made all the difference to Mom.

Well, that's it for today. This one ran a little longer than usual, but then I've been away for a little while, for which I apologize, so I thought I'd cover a just bit more.

Well, let me remind you that today's transcript may be found at Music is by Well, I thank you again for tuning in and I hope you'll join us next time.