A Day to Experience Figure-Ground

To review my topic figure-ground from a broader view, I decided to spend a day to study if its relevant theories was applicable on a daily basis. The location I chose was not far from where I work – a shopping complex called Sunway Pyramid. It was not only an ideal place to collect all kind of materials I need, but also a testing ground for the theories. Here we go:

Law of Similarity and Law of Direction
The law of similarity states that the elements appear in homogeneous similarity are perceived as a grouped organization. The homogeneity can be defined via kinds of colors, shapes, textures, etc. Law of direction suggests that a directional attribute can be perceptually obtained from a group of aligned elements. After taking some photos, I realized that these two laws could be enormously applied into our daily lives. Take the green streetlights (Fig. 1) outside Sunway Pyramid as a example, they are perceived as a homogeneous group in accordance with their similar colors, shapes and materials, by using the law of similarity. This group of streetlights can also be seen as a directional path due to their alignment. As far as I know, these two laws can be applied on to other objects, i.e., artificial plants (Fig. 2), vases (Fig. 3), decorative lights (Fig. 4), downlights (Fig. 5) and even some decorations (Fig. 6). However, there is a difference in applying these two laws. Let’s look at the decorative lights (Fig. 4), they are perceived as one homogeneous group by using the law of similarity; more precisely, they can be seen as several rows of lines with the application of law of direction.

Fig. 1. The streetlights outside Sunway Pyramid, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 2. A row of artificial plants were found outside a restaurant, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 3. Some huge vases were placed along the hallway, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 4. The decorative lights inside the mall, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 5. Interior ceiling downlights, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 6. Some decorations hanged from the ceiling, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Law of Closure
The law of closure suggests that we tend to fill in the missing information. Jill Butler, Kritina Hoden and William Lidwell (2003, p.34) explain that “the tendency to perceive a single (and recognizable) pattern (rather than multiple, individual elements) is so strong that people will close gaps and filling in missing information to complete the pattern if necessary.” In Fig. 7, we tend to ignore the gap and connects the image of the pillars, by using both law of closure and law of similarity.

Fig. 7. A gap is found in between two pictured pillars, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Perceived as A Whole
It’s also interesting to look at some outlet signage. Nowadays, many of the signboards are made of LED lights (Fig. 8 and Fig. 9). In spite of their design, pattern and lightness, we tend to perceive the whole display of title rather than individual light bulbs, by using several Gestalt laws, i.e., law of similarity, law of proximity and law of direction.

Fig. 8. LED signboard of a retail outlet, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 9. LED signboard of a restaurant, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Law of Similarity and Law of Proximity
Both the law of similarity and law of proximity are adopted here to perceive the light bulbs placement (Fig. 10), which was found in a shop window. When law of proximity and law of similarity are employed in the same constellation, Max Wertheimer (1923, p. 301) explains that “they may be made to cooperate; or, they can be set in opposition-as.” In this case, the law of similarity prevails. We tend to categorize the light bulbs by their colors, but not by the proximity.

Fig. 10. The light bulbs placement in a shop window, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Convexity and Concavity
The rule of convexity and concavity can be applied into both two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture, notably to Henry Moore’s sculptures. Rudolf Arnheim (1969, p. 241) suggests that “figure-ground relationship between the volumes can be perceived visually only when the outer volume is transparent or empty.” I find the theory can also be applied to the fences, which are filled with die-cut holes (Fig. 11 and Fig. 12), in which a plane of background can be seen through the hollowness, so to say, the concept of depth level (Arnheim, 1969, p. 233) is presented.

Fig. 11. A fence filled with die-cut holes, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Fig. 12. Another fence filled with die-cut holes, taken on 22 Dec 2013

Overall, it’s a fruitful experience to apply a series of figure-ground theories into daily life. It’s worth mentioning that, Gestalt psychology has been playing an active role to interpret our visual perception.

Arnheim, Rudolf (1969) Art and Visual Perception: A psychology of the creative eye. Berkeley CA: University of California Press

Butler, Jill, Hoden, Kritina and Lidwell, William (2003) Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design. Gloucester: Rockport Publishers

Wertheimer, Max (1923) ‘Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms’, Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt 2 (4), 301-350, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Wertheimer/Forms/forms.htm (visited 15/10/13)


2 responses to “A Day to Experience Figure-Ground

  1. This looks like a useful trip! It’s good to see that you were able to explore an environment with a particular theme in mind (figure/ground). Perhaps this allowed you to see familiar spaces in a new way.

  2. Yes, it’s a practical trip involves analysis and observations. I’m now getting more to appreciate the theories by applying the theories into daily life, as well as other visual perceptual experiences.

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