Saturday, September 13, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 32, We're All Seeking Closure

Download Episode 32

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

In our continuing series on Unity, we're exploring Gestalt Theory - which is about perception, and how our minds make meaningful wholes out of incomplete parts. But as a topic of design study, it's a way of putting designers in the driver's seat. In other words, these concepts help us control how our audience sees what we put in front of them. It allows us to control the points of emphasis, among other things, so we can communicate in a more controlled way.

So moving right along, the next Gestalt concept we want to cover is Closure. Closure describes something that our our minds do to help us fill in the blanks. If a square is composed of a broken or dashed line, we understand it to be a square. We accept it as a square. It's not truly a square because of the spaces between the bits of line, but our minds of forgiving of this, and accept it as a square. If we see a half-shadowed face, we fill in the blanks. We accept that there is another side of the face. Otherwise, we might scream in horror over missing eyes and ears.

And this is a really good thing to know if you're ever stranded on a desert island. You can have full confidence that when you form the word, "S.O.S," out of rocks on the beach, the rescue plane pilot won't just see a bunch of scattered stones, he'll recognize your distress call for what it is and pick you up.

But Closure does another important thing for designers. It teaches us an important sensibility. And that's that you don't have to be super-explicit all the time. You don't have to overplay your hand to get the job done. Your audience can put together a whole lot of meaning out of a few elements. And this reminds us not to visually over-explain, or to underestimate our audience. We can take a less-is-more approach with assurance that they'll "get it." So go ahead and imply a human face with a few odd, unlikely objects. Your audience will discern that face and smile at how clever you were, and how clever they were for being able to see it. Or go ahead and suggest additional letterforms using the figure-ground technique we discussed last time. Your audience will perceive that letter, and you're client will thank you for making a slicker logo for them.

But, that's Closure. And the stronger the gestalt effect is, which is a function of strong grouping, the easier it is for your audience to see the intended effect. In that SOS example, imagine if the stones on the beach were left unattended, and the tide began to move them apart, weakening the grouping. That would certainly make it harder for the pilot to see those letterforms. So, like most things, there's a balance you'll want to strike between clarity and ambiguity. And it's up to the designer to make that call.

Well, that's it for today. This one was brief, but like that Closure sensibility, why overplay my hand, why overexplain?

I'll just remind you that, as always, a transcript may be found at Music is by And if you're enjoying this ongoing series, please vote for the program at podcast alley, or at the iTunes profile page, and I'll thank you in advance for doing so, as I thank you once again for tuning in.