Why You Need A Website Gestalt by Jerry Bader
'Wired' magazine published an intriguing article entitled 'Very Short Stories' where they asked a number of authors to create a story in only six words. At first this seems to be an impossible task, but as you'll see it's an excellent example of how the principles of Gestalt can help marketers develop powerful marketing messages on their websites or in any other marketing venue.
One of the best 'Very Short Stories' was by Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, "Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht." This macabre six-word tale tells us a complete story. We need no further details or explanation to understand exactly what has happened. This is an example of what the Gestaltists call 'closure' the ability of the brain to fill in the blanks in order to complete a picture or in this case to tell a story.
Since the early days of the Gestalt movement visual artists have had an affinity for the psychological implications of the theory. We are all familiar with Op Art's visual tricks and with Rorschach images and how we interpret them, but as you can see from Atwood's clever six-word story, this principle also works on a conceptual level.
Although proponents of Gestalt have been mainly concerned with the visual implications of the theory's principles, these same principles can be applied to more sophisticated problem solving issues. The ability to form almost instantaneous conclusions from relatively little information as discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Blink' could easily be attributed to the analytical implications of Gestalt theory.
Delivering a marketing message on a website quickly and in a manner that is easy to understand and remember is the primary problem-solving task confronting the professional website designer concerned with achieving his or her client's marketing objectives.
There are many examples of how this principle of closure works. Someone gives you something to read. The text on the page at first appears to be gibberish as none of the words have any vowels, but despite their absence, you find that you can still read the message and understand what is being said.
These examples illustrate how the human brain puts pieces of information together until it recognizes a pattern that has some meaning. This phenomenon has often been boiled down to the familiar phrase: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
When websites disappoint, the cause most likely starts with a failure to recognize that websites are communication vehicles and that communication is as much a psychological design problem as it is an artistic or programming exercise.
The Significance of Pattern Recognition
Direct marketers have successfully used the natural human need for resolution, to fill-in the blanks, to sell all kinds of products. A common approach is to offer a reduced price starter kit for some collectible item like a spoon, dish, or coin that includes the first item of a series and a display case with room for several more products. When customers get the first collectible and place it on the display provided, the empty spaces cry-out to be filled. It's an old marketing gambit, but one that works because human beings are hardwired to fill-in the blanks and complete the display or pattern.
The Gestalt visual designer will use five pattern producing contextual techniques in order to provide the viewer with clues for completing the pattern that in-turn communicates the message;
1. Closure: the mind is predisposed to complete a pattern by filling in the blanks from the available information.
2. Continuance: the mind will follow a path seeking a conclusion or resolution from clues that point in particular direction.
3. Similarity: the mind fights abstraction by trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together in some familiar form.
4. Proximity: the mind draws conclusions from the physical relationship of clues that clarify associations that help make the unknown known.
5. Alignment: the mind demands organization and will use association to create meaningful groups of information.
The Significance of Story Telling
Successful marketers don't need to provide every detail of a marketing message in order to deliver a meaningful presentation, in fact too much information can actually get in the way of delivering a sophisticated communication. Like Margaret Atwood's six-word story, meaning can be both concise and precise when the right combination of information is presented.
A story is nothing more than a conceptual pattern with a beginning, middle, and end. When your brain has to do a little work to put the pieces of information together to form a complete comprehensible message, that story becomes more memorable and that is exactly what marketers and advertisers strive to achieve.
If we want to maximize sales we have to look at the big picture. What do we want from our website visitor or prospect beyond a one-shot sale of a product or service? The answer lies in how we learn, how we come to conclusions, and how we develop our personal belief systems. Our belief systems range from our political affiliation to the brand of toothpaste we buy.
Developing A Marketing Belief System
All marketers have learned Al Reis and Jack Trout's axiom that a brand is owning a piece of your audience's mind, the problem has always been how to actually acquire that valuable piece of real estate?
The management of a business is an all consuming process that leaves little time for contemplation of conceptual problem solving, but if we step back for just one moment and think of our customers as human beings, animals with the need to resolve problems and form conclusions based on a unique mental process, then maybe we can present our marketing case with more long term impact.
Everything we believe in is based on a four-part mental process that is best executed by means of a linear narrative - a compelling well-formed story.
1. Retention: the message we deliver must be retained in order for it to have any long-term affect.
2. Comprehension: the message must be understood in order for it to achieve the desired goal.
3. Interpretation: a well-formed message will be processed by the audience who will draw it's own conclusions based on previous knowledge or pre-existing belief systems.
4. Cognitive extension: once a message has been retained, understood, and interpreted, the mind will file it away and use it as a way to filter future information that relates to it.
Implications of Gestalt To An Evolving Web Environment
The principles of Gestalt and the need for human beings to resolve problems through pattern recognition have greater implications than just visual design. As early as 1890 Austrian philosopher, Christian von Ehrenfels wrote an article, "On Gestalt Qualities' in which he pointed out that a piece of music could be recognized even when it was played in different keys where all the notes were different. The inference is clear: the need to resolve ambiguity and to solve problems is fundamental to how we think and applies to how we process signals to our brain from all our senses not just visual ones.
As website design slowly evolves from the presentation of mere text and static images to a richer more eloquent environment, the sophisticated Web-marketer will need to incorporate the psychology and principles of Gestalt to better deliver their marketing story - a story best told by tapping into as many of an audiences senses as the environment used will allow.
The power of this approach lies in it's ability to influence an audience's belief system by establishing a set of mental patterns that help your targeted audience resolve purchasing dilemmas in your favor, and at the same time, act as a barrier to competitors' less sophisticated marketing approaches.
About the Author
Jerry Bader is Senior Partner at MRPwebmedia, a website design firm that specializes in Web-audio and Web-video. Visit http://www.mrpwebmedia.com, http://www.136words.com http://www.sonicpersonality.com. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone (905) 764-1246.