Pattern finding: create better ads using visual theory

How can we use science to get people to look at our advertisements? The short answer: visual theory. As a communications student, I notice advertising everywhere. I’m not always an expert on what makes a successful ad campaign. However, I’m always an expert on deciding what I like to look at and what I don’t. It’s easy to tell when an advertisement or image looks pleasing to us or when something catches our eye. Visual theory explains “why” something looks good. This is a just a brief description of some visual theory and not quite a comprehensive guide.

There are many aspects to visual theory that can be applied to create an advertisement or image that catches the eye. For example, humans are naturally face-seekers. We almost always notice faces first. Our eyes are often more likely to see yellow first. Max Wetheimer, a German-Austrian, formulated an interesting theory in 1912 to explain pattern-seeking in human behavior called Gestalt theory.

What about this FedEx advertisement makes it visually appealing?

Patterns are powerful. Our brain is also seeking patterns. It works in a quick two-step process. First, our brain sees the pattern, within the first few milliseconds. Second, if the brain is interested it notices the details of the image. To grab the attention of our audience when creating an advertisement, we can use Gestalt theory patterns to grab the attention and then maintain it with interesting details.

Think of those first few milliseconds as first impressions. When a recruiter is looking over resumes, they usually spend 5-10 seconds looking at one before deciding whether to keep going. It takes something interesting or unique to persuade them to continue. Our brains take even less time to decide if it will continue to find something interesting.

Figure-ground is the first Gestalt pattern principle I will address. This refers to the background defining the image. Think of a dark, black night sky with a bright, white moon in the center of the photo. You’re going to notice the moon almost instantly and take a closer look. It’s attention grabbing. An example of weak figure-ground would be a busy image with too much going on. Nothing stands out. This explains why too much going on in an advertisement rarely looks good.

This Tabasco bottle stands out against the solid background, this is an example of strong figure-ground. (

Closure, the second Gestalt principle, is simply your eyes connecting the dots. For example, if I drew dots in a row, my brain would automatically connect those dots into a line. Effective advertisements allow our brains opportunities to draw conclusions.

Our eyes connect fill in the empty spaces to create a Panda in the World Wildlife Fund logo. (

Similarity, another Gestalt principle, is the idea that our brain automatically groups consistent sizes and shapes together. Proximity is when our brain tells us objects that are close together are related. This is illustrated in newspapers. We can tell the headline goes with the image because they are close together, not because there is anything on the page explicitly telling us they are related. This might seem simple, but too often advertisements can lose people because the principles of similarity and proximity are violated.

The Continuity and alignment principle states that our eye will follow lines. Our eyes perceive lines where there are not physically drawn out lines. If I place images diagonally across a page, the audience’s eyes will create an imaginary line across the page. Continuity can be utilized to direct a viewer’s eye at a certain element in the advertisement by creating an imaginary line using color, text, images, or shapes.

This McDonalds advertisement has strong continuity. Our eyes follow imaginary diagonal lines across the burgers to the center of the image.

Finally, a Gestalt break is literally a break in a pattern that attracts the eye. If I put five cubes in a row, then a space, and then five more cubes, our eyes are likely to notice the difference right away. This is because one of the primary functions of our vision is to notice differences. Gestalt breaks can create extremely effective advertisements by isolating a different image amongst many of the same images.

This advertisement for Kia uses a Gestalt break to draw your eye to the vehicle. (

These seemingly simple design principles can begin to explain why we look at advertisements and pictures the way we do. This visual theory is incredibly useful when creating effective advertisements that capture the viewers’ attention. Start by noticing this theory applied to advertisements in magazines, on billboards, and online. You’ll never look at advertisements the same way again.

Question? Comments? Reach out – connect with me here!

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lecture, Shiela Reaves (Fall 2016).

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