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Figure and Ground and Principles of Perception

Figure and Ground

How we interpret – or perceive - images is very important (see Gestalt principles below). The relationship between figure and ground is one of the most important relationships in design. In simplest terms the figure is what you notice and the ground is everything else.

Strong figure ground relationships attract the attention of the viewer. As I discuss elsewhere (in the section on Harmony, Dominance, Balance and Proportion) not all images have a figure/ground relationship or a centre of interest – some images are actually spoiled by having one – if all parts of the subject matter, when viewed as a whole, form a pattern or texture that is more interesting than the individual parts of the image.

However, in many photographs - and certainly in the vast majority of travel and documentary photography involving people - the process of viewing an image involves recognising and mentally arranging the main object (with possible secondary subjects) and background. The main subject may be identified through (for example) size, contrasts in tone (brightness) or contrasts in colour or through differential focus. Commonly – but not always -  the ‘figure’ is relatively large in the frame (it dominates) or the figure may be small (for example, an isolated figure picked out by colour in a cityscape or landscape thereby telling a different story).

‘We are conditioned to accepting the idea of a background….. from our normal visual experience, we assume that in most scenes there is something that we look at (the subject), and there is a setting against which it stands or lies (the background). One stands forward, one recedes. One is important, and the reason for taking the photograph; the other is just there because something has to occupy the rest of the frame…………… In most picture situations this is essentially true. We select something as the purpose of the image, and it is more often than not a discrete object or group of objects. It may be a person, a still life, a group of buildings …..What is behind the focus of interest is the background, and in many well designed and satisfying images, it complements the subject’. (Michael Freeman ‘The Photographer’s Eye’, page 46).

Of key importance are avoiding - when composing or cropping the image - elements which distract from the focus on the main subject and  placing the subject in a background context that complements and adds to the main subject – it is literally a context not just a background. Lots of overlapping detail makes it difficult to distinguish figure from ground.

Gestalt principles (adapted from Andy Routledge)

The fundamental principle of gestalt perception is the law of prägnanz (German for pithiness) which says that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric, and simple. ‘The Gestalt effect refers to the form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves … The phrase ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ is often used when explaining Gestalt theory’ (Wikipedia)

Some key ideas of Gestalt theory are important in how photographs appear to be ‘read’:

Figure Ground Relationship – as explained above, elements in an image tend to be perceived as either figures (distinct elements of focus) or ground (the background or landscape on which the figures rest). Andy Routledge explains why this is so important in design – from a photograph to a website to an advert,

‘I’m talking about this principle first because it is likely the most important. Determining the figure ground relationship is also the very first thing people do when they direct their gaze; new things come into view and our brains need a basis upon which to make sense of things. We have to determine which elements are figures (requiring immediate concern and attention) and which are ground (not so important right now, but do provide context).This process is of vital importance to humans and likely has its evolutionary basis in threat detection…………… Of course, it also ensures that we are able to prioritize our perception so we don’t go banging into things accidentally or ignore something of immediate proximity and importance.'

Our perception of the figure ground relationship allows us to organize what we see by how each object relates to others. The short and sweet version is: it allows us to determine what we’re supposed to look at and what we might safely ignore. We do this instantly and without effort in most cases, as we’re often in familiar surroundings and looking at familiar things. But when we are made to look at something unfamiliar, especially if it is a designed page, figure ground relationship clues determine the success of our experience. This success is the designer’s mandate.’

Closure and Simplicity - When looking at a complex arrangement of individual elements, humans tend to first look for a single, recognizable pattern. The whole is greater than the individual parts and in viewing the entire scene the mind takes a sudden leap (emergence) from recognising the individual elements to understanding the scene in its’ entirety. The implication is that ‘pleasing’ images are so designed to facilitate this process by (for example) excluding elements that interfere with an overall ‘pattern’ and by  use of graphic elements such as lines and shapes the photography helps the viewer make sense of an image.

‘Subtley formed shapes that are implied and understated … help to order an image into a recognizable form and allow the eye the satisfaction of discovering them by making a little effort’ (Michael Freeman ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ p65)

Uniform Connectedness - Elements that share uniform visual characteristics (such as colours) are perceived as being more related than elements with disparate visual characteristics.

Good Continuation - Elements arranged on a line or curve or form an implied shape are perceived to be more related than elements not on the line or curve or part of the shape and the mind tends to continue lines and shapes beyond the ‘frame’.

Common Fate - Humans tend to perceive elements moving in the same direction as being more related – and sharing a common fate  -  than elements that are stationary or that move in different directions.

Proximity -Things that are close to one another are perceived to be more related than things that are spaced farther apart.





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