The gestalt laws combine design with psychology. They're art meets grey matter. Contrary to what traditional roleplaying games might say, humans are complex. None of us perceive the world the same way, but we do have patterns, and the laws help designers watch out for them.
The better we understand, the more useful, accessible, and powerful our designs become.
But do I need them?
Of course not! There's no such thing as real rules when it comes to design. In fact, if the rules are what's holding you back, jump in head first. You can come back later when you've lost a limb or two.
That said, if you’re stuck on a problem or you like the dungeoneering part of graphic design, the gestalt laws are like a blood-stained map. They'll tell you where the treasure's buried and where the dragons are.
This one's for all you ten-foot pole types.
Law of Similarity
When individual elements look similar, our minds perceive them as having a related function.
In games, similar looking rules, maps, and components are often bundled and engaged with on the same assumptions. If they are similar, that's good, but if they're not, you're about to see your players' wires get crossed.
Law of Proximity
Proximity states that objects near or close to each other are grouped together and perceived as functionally similar.
In other words, if you group certain game rules or stats next to each other, players assume they’re connected.
Law of Common Region
Objects are perceived as a group when they share space in a clearly defined boundary.
The trick here is “defined boundary.” Common regions are created through overt methods—like read-aloud boxes, sidebars, and the page. A page is a common region. A two-page spread is a common region with two smaller common regions.
Law of Figure-Ground
People’s brains immediately perceive objects as either being in the foreground or the background. Important or unimportant.
Your goal is to harness that impulse and dictate the figure (subject) and the ground (background), so players and GMs can find the information that matters most—either while they’re learning or flipping through the rules.
Law of Closure
When we look at a complex arrangement of shapes and elements, our brains create a unified image.
We see this in logos, art, and graphics. But on a deeper, more theory-minded front, we see it in the way readers engage with rulebooks. They're always trying to close the loop. Present ideas in logical chunks.
Law of Simplicity
People perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images in the simplest form possible.
The human brain takes the clearest pieces of your work and simplifies them to save brainpower. When it can’t do this naturally, the viewer fills in the gaps with assumptions or gives up. You'll never get someone to play your game to the letter, but you can give them the core ideas.
Law of Connectedness
Elements that are touching or are touching a common element (like a line) are perceived as being connected.
If you want players to group elements as being connected, you should connect them subtly with common region, proximity, and similarity, or overtly with a background, line, or element touching them.
If the design principles were like a glossary, the Gestalt laws are its survival guide. Use them like a checklist to diagnose when you've fallen into the proverbial pit trap. If your design isn't working, it's a good chance you've broken a law (or not used one to your advantage).
If these kinds of topics have you feeling like a wizard, check out the side quest portion of "How to Become a Designer" and delve deeper with some Design Lore.
Last but not least, stay tuned for design delves. Now that you know the common traps of design, you can learn even more by watching someone else get peppered with poison darts. It's a lot more common than you think.
Until then, never stop exploring.