Gestalt Principles of Figure-Ground: Understanding What it Means and How to Use It

Have you ever considered how designs come together? Or how some designers can combine unique elements in order to create an enticing yet simple image? Yes, talent and luck are often involved. But what these designs typically have in common is they utilize the Gestalt Principles of Design.

These principles, which were devised in the 1920s by German psychologists, were created with the hope of figuring out how humans gain meaningful perceptions from the chaotic stimuli around them. As a result, these principles allow users to organize information and details that help their viewers and audience recognize patterns, simplify complex images, and better perceive and understand images and objects around them.

To better help, you grasp these Gestalt Principles of Design and how they work. This article will dive into more detail regarding one of these Gestalt Principles, specifically the Gestalt Principle of Figure-Ground. We hope that with the below information, we can provide you with a solid understanding of what this principle means and how you can use it in your designs.

What Does Figure-Ground Mean in Graphic Design

In general, the Gestalt Principle of Figure-Ground refers to space, forms, or shapes within a specific composition. Basically, what this means, is Figure-Ground is the state in which we view elements as either the object of focus or the background.

To break these terms down even further, consider the following:

  • The figure is also referred to as the positive space and is usually made up of visually dominant images on the ground.
  • The ground, which is also known as the negative space or the background, is the area that surrounds the figure.

When this concept is implemented into designs, the brain will try to distinguish between the figure (the design subject) and the ground.

How to use Figure-Ground in Graphic Design

Typically, when creating a graphic design, designers want their figure to demand attention and the ground to support the figure without distracting the audience. This can be done by adding color to help set the mood, making lines to help define the figure's shape or establishing a point of reference where the figure is what the audience notices.

In general, if you are looking to create distinctions between the figure and the ground, you may want to consider the following ideas:

  • Try blurring out the background or making it hazy
  • Try changing the contrast of the colors.
  • Try magnifying the figure to make the ground appear non-existent
  • Try to focus on the placement of your figure in the picture
  • Try minimizing the figure so that it seems insignificant

To see how these tips apply in the real world, take, for instance, warm colors such as yellow. These colors are often perceived as approachable and can help strengthen the image of the figure. In comparison, cool colors such as blues or purples are often thought of as a receding color and can be used to strengthen the ground.


The principle of Figure-Ground exists in almost everything we see. Whether we are looking at a logo, icon, website, or even a design, it is everywhere. Many times this is because our minds hate uncertainty. As a result, our brain will often look for any solid or stable item and focus on the foreground first. By using this knowledge, when a designer applies the Gestalt Principle of Figure-Ground effectively, they can help guide their audience in their tasks while also lessening their cognitive load.

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