The Fundamental Principles of Design and why everyone should understand them

Where is the love sung by The Black Eye Peas recreated in a tunnel underpass.
Photo by Emily Morter / Unsplash

I want you to take a moment and think of what design actually means. Sure, we readily use it in our daily vocabulary correctly, but do we really understand its definition?

Certainly I didn’t until very recently. As a developer when I think of design I think of mock-ups, wire-frames, prototypes and even engineering concepts such as system architecture and technology stacks. I think of design as simply the stage that proceeds implementation. While in a practical sense this is very much true, design is really way more broad then this. This realization really put me in a different frame of mind, one that truly gave me a sense of enlightenment that I wish to share with you all.

To put it simply, design is the science of human perception and its application on the creation of better products. As it turns out our brains have a set of fundamental principles that govern how we perceive and identify objects. By understanding these principles we can develop rules which when applied allow us to create more intuitive and useful products.

So what are these fundamental principles? In 1910 the psychologist Max Wertheime , one of the founding members of Gestalt psychology had a profound insight. He noticed that the the lights on a rail way crossing appear as if it is one light moving across the board when in fact it is a series of lights turning on and off. From this stemmed the key principles of perception which is dubbed as Gestalt Psychology.

There are four main concepts to understand.

Emergent Theory

The whole is greater than the sum of parts

when we first look at an object to identify it, we don’t start with the smaller details we seek to identify what it is as a whole. We recognize an object by detecting it’s outlines. The pattern of outlines is then compared to our cognitive databases of objects we already know. Once a match is found now we go about identifying the details. Try it now! Look at the object to your right or left. If for example this is a phone, the first thing that you recognize is that it is a phone. Then your process the details such as the brand, whether or not it has a cover, the color etc…

This is significant in design theory. It means a simpler object will convey information faster than one with more details and more difficult to read contours. This becomes especially relevant in dashboard design of operational dashboards, where the goal is to convey information as quickly as possible.


Our mind fills the gaps

Do you see a white triangle? Our brains here identifies a triangle even through it does not have the full three borders. This is called reification.

Fortunately our brains do not need an exact match to be able to identify objects. If an exact match is not found, our brains will find the nearest match to the pattern of outlines we see and use that to fill the remaining missing details. Take the triangle above for instance. There actually isn’t a triangle, but three pacman objects which simulate the corners of one. Due to emergent principles our brain matches this with the nearest thing we know which is a triangle.

In the practical this means we don’t have to provide complete information in order for a person to be able to identify things. Rather just enough for us to be able to find a close match so we can fill in the gaps. This principle is called closure.


Our brains avoid ambiguity

Is the front face of the cube left or right? Do you see a vase or two people looking at each other?

Our evolutionary instinct is to be able to identify things as quickly as possible. This allows us to detect danger or opportunity much faster. Thus, when an ambiguous object comes along which can be perceived in many different ways, our brains will cycle through these perceptions in an unstable fashion. However, one perception will be the most dominant. If we are not exposed to the other less dominant perceptions, eventually it will be very difficult to see the object as anything but the dominant one.

This principle allows us to infer that if we want to change a person’s view or perception we should not do it all at once. Rather, we should find a way to show the person the alternative perception, strengthen it and simultaneously weaken the other ones.


Perspective is irrelevant

Even though these objects are shown from different perspectives we identify them as the same.

Imagine if you could only identify your friend when they are faced forward towards you. Luckily, due to invariance this is not the case! We can identify objects regardless of their rotation and translation to be the same. This means it is important that when objects are made, they can be recognized from all angles and faces.

It is these four concepts that underlay mostly everything in design theory and allows designers to frame their important work in a logical, scientific and methodical fashion! To design is to understand how we see and understand the world and then use that understanding to make useful products. In an attention economy, where your attention is the product, this couldn’t be more important.

Learn More

Gestalt psychology and principles is a very well established field with plenty of resources online! I particularly liked this article , but there are so many other great videos, audio and literature to help you understand these important concepts.