Alex Bigman is liaison to 99designs' awesome community of graphic designers. He is a recent grad of UC Berkeley, where he studied history of art and cognitive science.
The word “gestalt” gets thrown around a lot in design. Taken from the German word for “form” or “shape,” it often refers to the overall look of something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In psychology, gestalt refers to the basic principles that allow us to visually perceive order.
These principles are fundamental building blocks for creating visual meaning – and often seen in logo design. To better explain how to utilize gestalt principles in your work, we’ve put together a designer-oriented crash course. Enjoy!
Logo: Sony Walkman (via Wikipedia)
When we look at the Sony Walkman logo (above), we don’t simply see a single plain containing orange and white pixels – even though that’s actually what it is. Rather, most of us perceive an illusory depth as well: we see a figure (a “W” and dot) and a ground that appears to be behind it.
That’s thanks to the figure-ground gestalt principle, which says that when a smaller shape is surrounded by a larger uniform area, we perceive the smaller object to be in front and have the border. With effort you can reverse the effect. Try imagining that the orange area is a sheet of paper with “W”- and dot-shaped holes cut out of it. You can do it, but it doesn’t feel natural.
Notice how the figure-ground distinction breaks down when the surrounding field is no longer uniform. The version below looks more like a mosaic, laid out in a single flat plane, rather than a figure in front of a background.
The perception of illusory depth disappears when the background is non-uniform
Logo: IBM (via Wikipedia)
When we look at the IBM logo, most of us see three letters composed of short horizontal lines stacked on top of each other. We don’t see 8 long horizontal lines that have gaps in them. Why is this? Partly, it’s because we recognize the letters “I,” “B” and “M”, but not entirely. The below version is in Hebrew, and we bet you’ll be able to see distinct letters even if you don’t know the Hebrew alphabet:
Logo: Hebrew version for IBM (via Logodesignlove)
The reason in fact has to do with the very simple gestalt principle of proximity. If there is a series of objects (such as lines), we tend to perceive objects that are close together as a group. The short segments of the “I” are all closer together than the short and long segments of the top horizontal bar, which has greater gaps between the “B” and “M” and the crevice in the “M.” As a result, we perceive the “I” as a unit and not the top horizontal bar.
Just as we tend to group together objects that are close to one another, we also tend to group together objects that are similar—whether in color, shade, orientation or shape.
It’s the perennial question for logo designers tasked with creating a wordmark: to create the type from scratch, or to simply modify an existing typeface?
As we previously discussed, there is no shame in sprucing up an existing typeface – indeed, some of the world’s most famous companies have done it! At the same time, creating an entirely custom font can really take branding to the next level.
If you’ve got the chops to do it, perhaps you should. Consider the following:
Coca-Cola’s logo, certainly one of the most well-known in the world, is based on Edwardian script – a style that was popular for handwriting in the late 19th century, but would not have worked very well as a printing typeface because of the way letters need to connect and because of limited legibility at smaller sizes.
If the founders of Coca-Cola had relied on an existing typeface, they probably would have wound up with something a lot blockier, and less memorable, than the version we know and love today.
IBM logo: Pixelonomics
For the IBM logo, Paul Rand did not simply take an existing typeface and slice it into bars. Rather, he created custom letters that are integrally composed of the separated horizontals. In the above image, Himanshu Khanna shows what the IBM logo might have looked like, had Rand taken the easy way out and simply chosen an existing font like Rockwell Bold (actual logo left; Rockwell Bold version right).
Many companies and organizations today are fully embracing the power of typeface to distinguish a brand, and not only requesting custom letters for their logos, but commissioning full, proprietary typefaces that can be used across all branding elements, from communications to packaging to advertisements.
Prada logo & typeface: Typecast
Prada is one example. Designer Gareth Hague of Alias took the distinctive forms of the fashion house’s existing logo and developed them into a full custom font set of letters, numbers and symbols.
Intel logo: Design Week
Intel recently commissioned a proprietary typeface for use across all of its communications, designed by Red Peak Branding. It does not directly borrow letterforms from the Intel logo, but it is made to complement them in a pleasing way.