Gestalt Theory as applied to graphic design is a kind of unified theory of what makes visuals “work". Essentially a set of principles about how every aesthetic and conceptual decision interrelates and influences each other, gestalt starts with some basic principles but is eventually about how the butterfly wings flap with the choice of a typeface and somehow result in the hurricane of a perfectly powerful layout. Or how ill-considered color choices can undermine whole compositions, or carefully styled typesetting specs can be the bedrock of a publication’s overall visual rhythm.
Consider how music is created. Gestalt thinking is an ever-changing pulse of creation which designers consciously or subconsciously monitor as they work. That pulse either attunes to an individual designer’s sense of purpose and correctness or it is out of sync, providing a buzz of feedback that results in your intuition suggesting “keep working, this isn’t as good as it can be yet”. Musicians and designers call it several things, like being “on fire” or “in the zone".
Like a songwriter crafting an amazing tune, designers are mindful of a pretty musical set of concerns:
Mood & Story
Musically, this is the equivalent of the creative brief. What are you creating, and why? What do you hope to achieve? How should people feel when they experience it? There’s no real difference between being inspired to write a smoky torch ballad or deciding to design a 60’s retro psychedelic poster design: setting your goal is job #1.
Melody & Rhythm
Like a striking melody or rhythm can be the backbone of most good songs, art direction is the set of approaches and stylistic techniques that form the visual framework around a design project. A great guitar tone might pair perfectly with a vocal style and create magic — creating a legendary song, or a signature sound. Similarly, some of the biggest brands in the world like Apple, Nike, Coke and others have been built around interrelated systems of very purposeful design choices.
The Beach Boys knew it, so did Queen with Bohemian Rhapsody: There’s something undeniable about the way sounds layer together that can make your hair stand on end. For graphic designers, striving for harmony among all the various elements of a project is a constant, ever-moving target that shifts with each new aesthetic decision. Classicist graphic designers like Milton Glaser utilized an almost zen-like ability to harmonize their work, while mavericks like David Carson purposefully eschewed harmony in favor of discord in order to make powerful counter-culture statements. Both understood exactly how important harmony was to their work.
Hierarchy & Mix
A fundamental part of finding harmony in a work of design or music is developing a keen sensitivity to the hierarchies of scale and presence that the constituent parts of a project occupy. From there a musician or designer can make sure they work together simultaneously, rather than competing for attention with each other. In music, presence relates to sound levels and tonal balance, the way a musician may adjust the mix by bringing the vocals up and cutting the high end on the lead guitar. Meanwhile, a graphic designer might scrutinize the spatial relationships in a design’s hierarchy, and tweak the visual weight of a field of color by adjusting the CMYK values to be more in balance with a headline. Both recording artists and graphic designers craft in this manner in order to bring some coordination to the way their various elements interact.
While recording booths and swanky design studios might seem like spaces cut off from the real world, neither musicians nor graphic designers create in isolation. The context in which their works must live and communicate is almost always a fundamental consideration in tempering a finished piece. Nirvana’s timing was impeccable in the 1990’s, when their grungy sound seized on growing teen angst in the US after the 1980’s. Similarly, Apple’s iconic “1984” ad shattered conceptions of what personal computers should be, right as the information age was taking shape. Nirvana and Apple both understood the important contextual lenses their work would be viewed through.
Finally, when it’s time to pull everything together and finalize a work, graphic designers and musicians both invest significant effort in the final technical details. The full measure of an artist’s ability to convey the whole of their effort rest squarely in their mastery of the ways and means by which their work is reproduced. From instrument choices through soundcheck, font selections all the way to seeing a poster roll off a press — understanding production is critical to making good work sing.
My education in gestalt thinking comes from my time studying under Jack Nichelson at the University of Florida’s College of the Arts. What I learned from him as a young designer was to seek that music-like groove of critical thinking, and understand when my intuitive sense of how things should work together was leading me in fruitful directions — or into dead ends. Whether you’re “on fire” or “in the zone”, cognitive scientists say your brain is in an alpha state.
And as I’ll explain soon, alpha states can unlock huge creativity.