Similarity and proximity are two of the four grouping concepts in classic gestalt theory (the other two are closure and simplicity). Similarity refers to what items look like and how that effects grouping. Proximity refers to where items are and how that effects grouping.

The objectives of this lesson are to:

Understand how similarity works to produce both unity and variety.

Understand how proximity works to produce both unity and variety.

Learn four proximity types and how to use them.

Make an image where similarity is used to promote variety and proximity is used to create a unified composition.



Similarity is concerned with what items look like.

Subject matter will be eliminated for this discussion because gestalt is based on what items look like not what they are like.

There is a limit to the amount of information that the mind can keep track of. When the amount of visual information becomes too great the mind tries to simplify by grouping. Groups are formed in logical ways based what information look like and where the various items are located. Similarity is concerned with what items look like.

Similarity is a powerful grouping concept and as such can contribute significantly towards achieving unity. The more alike the items are, the more likely they are to form groups. By the same token, if items are dissimilar, they will resist grouping and tend to show more variety. It is important to understand that all of the gestalt concepts can be used both ways -- to group and to ungroup

There are three major similarity types -- ways items can look alike (or look different):


Size: Notice in the example on the left that the squares and circles are presented in two different sizes. Do you first notice them grouping because of their shape or their size? The difference between the sizes is probably greater here than the difference in the shapes. Had they been only slightly larger the shape difference might have been noticed first. The potential, however, for size variation is greater than the differences possible in shape so size is usually a more dominant similarity type.

Size has the additional advantage of letting items be B I G ! You learned when you study emphasis that bigger is better when it comes to visibility.



Value/Color: Another powerful similarity type is value/color. The two are grouped together because value is part of color but can act independently (black and white images).

Again notice that the dominant grouping concept is color not shape. Color makes items easy to identify and hence makes a good grouping tool. Value can work as easily as color, and in fact sometimes is a stronger design element. You learned about color and value in the first section of the course. Try to learn all you can about using color in each of your assignments. Try different combinations of things to see what works and what does not work.



Shape: Shape, and shape like elements such as direction and texture, can also form groups. When all other things are equal it performs quite well in this function. The squares and circles used here are simple geometric shapes. It is possible to make shapes that are more distinct and therefore more noticeable. Complex shapes may stand out more but there is attractiveness to simpler shapes that makes them more powerful visual elements in most cases. They appeal to our sense of order.

A simple example of using shapes to group is the use of italic or bold type to emphasis and separate parts of a sentence.

These and other similarity types are used extensively in design to create order and to organize information into specific groups in order to make the material presented more understandable. You will be using magazines for the raw material for this lesson's project. Look at how they are organized and notice how often the various concepts just mentioned are used to control groups of information.

It is important to understand that it is possible, often necessary, to deliberately make items look different in order to make them stand out or to create more variety in a composition. You will use dissimilar looking items in the project for this lesson to better understand how to create and control variety.


Proximity is concerned with where items are placed.
Where items are placed in relation to each other is another important gestalt consideration. Proximity relationships will generally dominate over similarity relationships. The strongest control is available when the two are used together.
There are four specific types of proximity relationships that will be studied in this lesson: close edge, touch, overlap and combining.


This sign for a money exchange makes poor uses of close edge proximity.

The $ sign is too close to the word exchange.
Makes you think twice about using their services.



Close edge: The general concept for proximity states that the closer items are to one another, the more likely they are to be seen as a group. The amount of space involved is relative.

Look at the example to the left and notice that there are fourteen items that form three groups with one orphan at the bottom right that is not quite part of the group above it. Size is another strong grouping option. Shape is a distant third for forming groups.

This kind of grouping is used extensively with printed type. The example below forms two words -- close and edge. You know it is two words because of the larger space between them.

Close edge

In the example below the same space that was between words in the example above is used between the letters of close and edge. Notice that they still form two words because of the even larger space between them.

C l o s e . e d g e

We read words from left to right but also from top to bottom. Close edge relationships can form groups in any direction. What would you order if you saw this sign in a restaurant window?

FOOD .. . .. SOLD

In the example below the letters and the colored backgrounds are in a close edge relationship. The white paper shapes the letters were printed on are not a factor against a white background.



Touch: When items get close enough they touch. They still are two different items but they seem to be attached together. This makes for a stronger gestalt than close edge. Notice in the example to the left that the touching groupings are stronger than the close edge groupings. In the example there are no size differences so the shape relationships are more noticeable.

In the example below the letters and/or their colored backgrounds touch.


Overlap: The strongest gestalt between two items happens when they overlap. Two colors are used in the example to the left to show the overlaps better. When the two items are the same color they seem to form a new, more complex shape. The new shape seems flat.

When the items are different colors the overlap produces the illusion of a shallow space. The overlapped items form a strong group regardless of color.

Notice the grouping hierarchy. The overlapped groups are the strongest. The two color groups are a close second to the all black group. Touching is next then close edge. Shape is probably the weakest gestalt in this example.

In the example below the letters and/or their diferent colored backgrounds all overlap.

All of the above examples of proximity relationships have used simple shapes that are grouped because of where they are placed in relationship to each other. No additional elements are used. 






Combine: It is possible to group various items together by using an external element that acts to combine the items regardless of what other gestalt concepts are being used. The underline used in the previous sentence is such a combining device. Notice that it groups the phrase "external element" and sets it off from the rest of the sentence.

A significant characteristic of combining is that it both groups the items used and sets them apart from the rest of the information around them. This "highlighting" (another combining device) is perhaps the most significant aspect of this concept. It is used with information that the designer wants to call attention to. The quotation marks and brackets in this paragraph serve the same purpose.

There are many ways to combine items. Underlining items, putting boxes around them and putting items against a background (such as a color or a picture) are the most common.

In the example to the left all of the proximity and similarity concepts are used. Note how the items combined by the red and black squares are grouped both with each other and with the background squares. Also note that these are the items that stand out the most.

In the example below the letters are all combined on the green background.



As you look at the examples notice how each of the four proximity types are used, especially combining.

Student example #1

Student example #2

Student example #3




Make a collage that consists of a simple phrase of four or more words and a picture that illustrates the phrase. The words will be made using all different sizes, colors and shapes of letters cut from magazines. The letters will be chosen for maximum variety and no duplicate styles are allowed unless there are more than twenty letters in the phrase. There will be at least one word using each of the four proximity techniques to organize all of that word's letters into the word. All of the letters must be easy to see and the phrase must be easy to read.

Find a phrase that you are interested in using that can be illustrated with a picture you can find (or make). Use a song title, song lyrics, a bit of a poem, a quotation, a proverb or common phrase that you can relate to. There has to be at least four words with two or more letters. Do not go overboard. This is time consuming and can take up a lot of space.

Start collecting letters. Tear whole pages or sections of pages out of magazines that contain large, colorful, interesting letters. After you have a twenty or more groups of letters collected start spelling out your phrase. One technique is to write the phrase out on a large page with lots of space around each letter. Cut or tear out the letters you want to use and put them in piles on the corresponding letters of your phrase.

Remember that the color of paper behind the letter will often show so make the shapes around the letters look like what you want to see.

As you are looking for letters, look for an illustration to use. Be open minded and flexible. Sometimes a picture will suggest a phrase and you can start with the illustration.

Do not trim anything too close until you see where it is going and how it will be effected by the imagery around it.

When you have all the parts start laying out the composition. Try lots of different variations until you have what you want. Use combining on the most important part of the phrase. You can combine a single word for emphasis or a part of the phrase to set it off.

Make sure you have used all four proximity techniques, each for an entire word. Touch and overlap work best on short words. The colors behind the letters can be the things that touch or overlap.

Make sure it is readable and all of the letters are easy to see.


The white paper in the Design Book will not act to unify the composition the same way a colored background will. A colored background will act as a combining device for the entire composition -- especially important if more than one page is used. A border will do the same thing. Choose a color that will work well with the rest of the image.

Combine one or more significant words on top of the illustration. This will set those words off and relate them to the picture. Be careful with the backgrounds of the letters and where they are placed on the picture. The potential for visual confusion is great and extra care must be taken to make the word(s) readable.

Similarity can be used to spotlight certain words. Make a word like "fire" all reds for instance. Use different sizes and shapes to control variety.

Choose an especially large, visible letter for the first letter in the phrase. This composition is probably going to look very confusing and it is a good idea to help the viewer find a place to start looking.





If the composition will fit on one page make sure there is room for the label. If not, put the label on the facing page. The image can use either a vertical or horizontal format.

If more space is needed a fold out is recommended. To do this:
Take a page out of the back of the book and trim off the rough edge where the spiral binding went.

Carefully fold 1/2 inch along the edge you want to join to the page in your book.
Put glue on the folded edge and glue the new page addition onto the page in the book that you are going to mount your project on. The new addition can be trimmed if less than a full page is required.

It is possible to make a project that is 2, 3, 4 or more times as large as your design book page. The problems start when you glue the collage onto the new page. Try to avoid putting anything over the crease. The flexing of the paper will make the glue fail unless you are very careful.

Label this project GESTALT. It will be worth 20 points.

During the critique for this project you will have to show the class which words in your composition use each of the four required proximity techniques.

A variation of proximity that is very often used in graphics is alignment. This concept works when visual elements align along edges or vertically through their centers.

© 2002 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.