Gestalt Factor: Direction

Time for another step into the interesting world of gestalt factors.

This is the fourth factor we are dealing with: The Factor of Direction.

Wertheimer says: ” As Figs. (…) also show we are dealing now with a new principle which we may call The Factor of Direction”.

The figures, that he is referring to are simple figures consisting of a straight line or curve (A & C) hit by one, or more, shorter lines or curves e.g. line/curve B. 

 Visual Figures: Main and secondary lines.

gestalt-figure-direction-01-115-112.jpg                                       gestalt-figure-direction-02-150-112.jpg 

The two figures above are similar to some of the simplest figures Wertheimer used in his experiments, hereby indicated that some figures can be more complicated than the ones shown. However they all illustrate the same idea about directionality.

The main line structure is along the longer line A/C. He talks about “good continuation”, “inner coherence” and suggests that some linear structures show good gestalt simply “by its own inner necessity”. 

The shorter lines, B, in both cases above will tend to have secondary role in perceiving visual figures as these.

Wertheimer talks about the unequivocally of such patterns. They are unambiguous, and have a clear direction that is based on what is perceived as the main line structure of a figure.

This is not only the case when straight lines are involves, but it is also valid in curved lines when the longer curves is perceives more dominant than shorter, tangential curves. It seems to be a general phenomenon at work here, thus a gestalt factor

When talking about more complex units than those Wertheimer points to, like for instance photographs or pictures, it seems relevant to talk about perceived lines and perceived direction of a second level. Let’s call this second level directions for impressions. So, let me illustrate this with some pictures.


 Second Level Direction: Impression of coherency.

Beach Model 

The coherent line in this image is, in my opinion, the diagonal line from the left hand low corner – the beach line. The horizontal line, which is the other main line in the image, cannot visually compete with the strength of the beach line. The placement of the woman in the continuation of the beach line gives a relaxed, coherent impression. Her facing the horizontal line helps lock up the line structures in the image.


 Second Level Direction: Impression of collision.

 Copenhagen Marathon 2007.

The main line in this image is perceived to be the line going vertically from the bottom of the picture to the other end of the tunnel, where the crowd of people are gathered – the tunnel line. The perceived horizontal line, where the three people move, is the secondary line – the crossing line. The inner coherence will be constituted along the tunnel line. As the crossing line is quite strong in thus picture it creates a kind a tension, a conflict in the image. However, as in the former picture, it helps to lock up the picture, that two of the crossing people face the main line and thereby link into that.

The main point with The Factor of Direction is that certain line structures seems to lend themselves to some sort of unambiguity, that ease the perception of them.

Adding more lines, and thereby introducing a more complex visual picture, can stress that ease of perception. Using Wertheimer’s visual figures it is pretty easy to agree on this, but these simple figures rarely exist in our life-world. As seen in the two photographs above, the visual deconstruction of real-life situation will be much more complex and demanding.

Real-life communication, of course, is in terms of complexity closer to the two photographs than to Wertheimer’s clinical experiments. And more demanding. Nothing to do about that, I am afraid 🙂 .


How to use: 

As indicated in the pictures above, you can use the factor of direction in two ways: use it coherently and built on the good continuation, or skip the good continuation to set things, objects, logos, whatever, apart. 

Doing the first thing, you can expect perceptions that are less troublesum for the reader/viewer, than if you go for the second. Dependent on what your aim, or for that matter, what your target or target group is, you will pick your choise.

Does it work for other areas of communication than mere visuals?  Well, you consider e.g. storytelling where you could have one major theme, and more minor themes. Or music? And other areas?

I would say yes, definitely.

Max Wertheimer: ”Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms” in A Sourcebook of Gestalt Psychology, prepared by Willis D. Ellis,  Routledge & Kegan Paul, Great Britain 1974, page 81 ff. (Library Thing). 



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