Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds In this video, we’re going to continue down the path of exploring how the brain processes the world around it. And specifically, we’re actually going to be talking about a 19th century branch of psychology known as the Gestalt school of psychology. And you may be asking yourself, why in the world are we going to be talking about a 19th century branch of psychology in this particular course? But trust me, it’s pretty relevant. So the Gestalt school studied how humans in the human brain did exactly what we’re talking about – processed the world around it.
Skip to 0 minutes and 34 seconds And they came up with a bunch of principles and insights in terms of how the brain works, and how the brain sees, and processes, and thinks, that can be really relevant to building great graphs and visuals. And they came up with a bunch of stuff, but I’m just going to talk about a few that I think are particularly relevant for our work at hand, which is building great graphs and visuals. I’ll start this section with a quote as well. And this one is from Kurt Koffka and Kurt Koffka was one of the founders of the Gestalt school of psychology.
Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds And he’s got a quote that is often misquoted, but his actual quote was, “The whole is other than the sum of the parts.” And it is often misquoted as “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. But he really didn’t mean it the way he said it, and that will become clear in a few minutes as we talk through some of these principles. Let’s start with one that I think bangs that quote home pretty well. And I’m going to start by putting a graphic up here that looks a bit like Pac-Man for those that are familiar with the video game.
Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds And so right now, we’ve got a singular Pac-Man sitting on the screen, but what if I were to throw a few more of these Pac-Man facing off against one another? Now all of a sudden the brain has to decide, am I looking at three Pac-Man facing each other or am I looking at three circles with a white triangle superimposed on top? And depending on how you focus on it, the brain can see both of those things. And this is a principle of visual perception from the Gestalt school called figure and ground. And I think it’s often used to bang home that quote of Koffka that the whole is other than the sum of the parts.
Skip to 2 minutes and 9 seconds The brain can see things differently depending on how it focuses on it. So let’s look at a few of the other principles that are pretty relevant for our task of building great graphs. And the first is one of proximity, and I’m going to start by putting some random data points up here on the screen. And the brain sees that and says, okay, that’s a group of data, but looks pretty random. But if I were to arrange those data points and group things together, the brain begins to say, oh, that’s a group. I think a great way to show that is let’s arrange them maybe a little differently.
Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds And you see I’ve got a square here on the top of a bunch of dots and a square on the bottom made up a bunch of dots. But the square on the top, I arranged the dots to be closer together on the horizontal lines. And the square on the bottom, I arranged the dots to be a little closer together on the vertical lines. And the brain sees that immediately, right? Like it saw the square on the top as being horizontal lines of dots and the square on the bottom being vertical lines of dots. And that’s a function of where those dots are in relation to one another. Remember, that’s also a pre-attentive attribute, the spatial positioning.
Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds So all of this stuff starts to come together as we think about how do we use it to build great graphs and visuals. The next we’re going to talk about is similarity. And let’s put our dots back up, both the random one and the ones that are grouped together a bit more. And what if I were to add some color to it? And you can see with the addition of color here, the brain sees those things as similar and says, that’s a group. Even on the random set over there, the three dots that are colored differently, the brain sees and says, oh, those must be related somehow, and it does that almost subconsciously. I show this with color.
Skip to 3 minutes and 59 seconds It doesn’t have to be color. Things can be similar based on shape or size, but the brain sees that similarity and it instinctively says, that’s a group that goes together. You see this a lot in things like a scatterplot. So shown here, I’ve got a bunch of dots, but I’ve colored some blue and some red. The brain says, oh, those must be different groups. If those weren’t colored differently, the brain might just say, that’s a bunch of dots. And you can use this really effectively in things like bar and column charts where if you want to draw someone’s attention very specifically to a segment or a couple of the bars, having them colored differently is one way to do that.
Skip to 4 minutes and 42 seconds You could also do it as outlined differently if you want to move away and use something other than color. So let’s keep moving through some of these principles. And the next one I’ll talk about is connectivity. And again, I’ve got my data points up here, both the random ones and the ones that are more distributed together. And what if I were to draw lines between some of these dots? So again, even on a random one, I drew this line through a series of them. And the brain instinctively sees that and says, huh, those data points must be related. Before you didn’t think they’re related, but now there’s a line through it. And now the brain thinks that must be related.
Skip to 5 minutes and 16 seconds And what’s interesting about some of these principles, and this one in particular, is that some of these principles of perception, the brain gives dominance to. And connectivity is actually dominant to similarities. So again, if I were to throw a color up here’s as my way of similarity, looking at the dots on the right is a great way to look at this. You can see there are some that are colored and some of them are connected by a line. The brain views that line connection as a stronger connection than the color connection. So connectivity actually dominates similarity.
Skip to 5 minutes and 48 seconds And you see this a lot in things like line charts where we’ve got a bunch of dots going through space; connecting it with a line, all of a sudden makes it easy for the brain to process what’s there. And the last one I’m going to talk about is enclosure. And again, let’s put the dots back up here. And what if I were to enclose some of them with a line? Or even without the line, if I were just to shade the background behind them like this? The brain now sees that as a grouping, that is something it needs to focus on. And this is something that can be used really effectively in charts like this line chart.
Skip to 6 minutes and 26 seconds What if I were to want to distinguish year
Skip to 6 minutes and 29 seconds by year: so 2013, 2014, 2015? So now instead of the eye having to go down to the bottom of the x-axis and say, where am I along the x-axis?, it just easily knows that, okay, this is one year, this is another year, this is another year. This is a perfect example of what I’m trying to get across. Make it easy for the brain to take in what you’re trying to tell it. Make it easy for your audience to understand what’s going on in your graph. Don’t have them moving their eyes back and forwards from axes to axes if they don’t need to. This can also be used for things like actual and forecast.
Skip to 7 minutes and 1 second Again, it’s another great way to very quickly have your audience members understand what’s going on in your graph. With these principles and the pre-attentive attributes that we talked about before, and the other concepts that have been discussed in the videos in the activities, this really should come together and begin to help you think about building graphs differently. And in the next video, we’re going to dive into how do we take a graph that’s put out of a default package, like Excel or PowerPoint, and actually use these concepts to build something great.
Gestalt principles of visual perception
Let’s continue our exploration of visual perception by looking at some principles from the Gestalt school of psychology.
The German word Gestalt describes the way something has been placed or positioned. It doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, but it is often translated as ‘form’ or ‘shape’.
How does the way that visual information is organized affect the way we perceive and interpret it?
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