Gestalt Theory and the Newseum Experience

I recently had the opportunity to spend the day at the DC Newseum, and I must say that I am impressed! Located adjacent to the Smithsonian and National Mall, the Newseum is a whopping 250,000 square foot, 7 floor museum that covers every nook and cranny of news from the last five centuries up to the last five seconds. Well, maybe not that recent, but they do have a display of daily newspapers from all around the world…how cool is that?

There are so many exhibits that I want to talk about (and eventually I will try to cover them all), however, one that particularly caught my eye had nothing to do with the subject matter but rather with the presentation itself. The exhibit, seemingly named “The World Has Changed,” is a visual representation of the world as depicted by three characteristics: free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (red). Though it is not well portrayed in the photo I provided (my apologies!), the exhibit is an amazing piece of construction that consists of hundreds of rectangle blocks strategically patterned to form the countries of the world. At face value this exhibit may not seem that amazing, but from a production standpoint it is certainly a feat. Let’s put it this way, have you ever tried to put together a 500-piece puzzle only to give up after an hour? Well, this exhibit took way longer and involved much more skill!

Ever since elementary art class (yep, I’m going way back), I have been amazed by the human mind’s ability to absorb individual elements as a whole and this concept is certainly present with this exhibit. Impressionism, and specifically the works of Claude Monet, has always held a special place for me. The idea that someone can dab thousands of painted dots on a canvas and create landscapes full of life and depth is simply magical. Similarly, “The World Has Changed” exhibit takes hundreds of separate, colored blocks and creates a “whole” for our minds to process and accept as one. Displayed separately and at random, the rectangle blocks used to construct this exhibit would certainly (at least for this purpose) be much less effective.

So, what does this have to do with communication theory you might ask?

The moment I saw it, the exhibit reminded me of a lecture from my visual communication course last semester. The chapter in question was “Perception and the Newspaper Page: A Critical Analysis” by Ken Smith of the University of Wyoming. In his chapter, Smith (2005) examines newspaper design and its relationship to human perception. Smith begins with an explanation of gestalt theory, which he defines as the following: “Gestalt theory suggests that humans have a subconscious tendency to combine diverse bits of information into organized wholes.”

Smith then goes on to discuss six major gestalt principles that help to explain visual organization which include similarity, proximity, continuation, closure, figure-ground, and symmetry. The two principles that relate most closely to the matter at hand are continuation and closure. Both principles suggest that the human mind has a tendency to close gaps and perceive separate shapes as complete forms. This is exactly the case with the Newseum exhibit in that the entire display is made up of separate, rectangular blocks whose overall shape is perceived as the countries of the world by its viewers. This being said, this particular exhibit also exhibits principles of similarity and proximity that undeniably add to its ability to appear whole, however, in an effort to keep my theory speak to a minimum we’ll touch on that in future posts.

To most people, this may or may not be interesting. Theory has a tendency to bore (or overwhelm perhaps?), but it’s all worth it when you see theories in practice. Communication theory in particular is demonstrated every moment of every day in the world around us and I feel fortunate enough to be able to play an active role. But if theory isn’t your thing, maybe you will at least find some enjoyment in the following examples of visual optical illusions. They are great examples of gestalt theory and many of them were designed for children, so they should be fun. This being said, fun doesn’t necessarily mean easy. We viewed some of these illusions in my course last semester and there are a few that tricked us all. Hope you enjoy!

Also, just in case you’re curious, here is the citation for the text referred to above:

Smith, K. L. (2005).  “Perception and the newspaper page: A critical analysis” in the Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media by K.L. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis, and K. Kenney. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

2 Thoughts

  1. Evan says:

    I’m glad to see someone blogging about the Newseum – It’s very well designed museum and I can’t wait to go back a second time!

    I’m not a Comm scholar/theorist, so I always strive to apply theories and principals to my writing (which I guess IS comm-related). In writing (dramatic/screenwriting in particular) students are always taught to not be “on-the-nose” with dialogue and direction. I.e., if a character is sad, he shouldn’t flat out tell the audience he’s sad, but instead, they should infer that through his actions and other characters’ reactions. So, much like the map from the Newseum, which creates a larger picture with smaller shapes, a character’s emotions are conveyed through tiny hints and actions. The audience then subconsciously puts the pieces together to form an overall view of character emotion.

    Your post is more based on visually “connecting the dots,” and I’m not familiar with gestalt theory, but are there any principals that specifically apply to writing? Either way, at the very least, it’s nice to have a fancy theory associated with what I’ve always been referring to “the opposite of on-the-nose.”

    PS: The illusion links were great! (some were a bit freaky)

  2. Tina Cipara says:

    @Evan Thanks for your clever interpretation! I have only studied elements of Gestalt Theory as they relate to visual communication, but I don’t see why the same principles couldn’t be applied to character development in creative writing. The same concept of linking separate pieces of information together to form a complete whole (e.g. a character’s emotion) is very much part of the character-audience relationship, which I would consider gestalt in nature. If I come across any other theories in my studies that could relate to creative writing, I will be sure to send them your way! Thanks again for your insight and I’m glad you enjoyed the illusions =]

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