Visual perception is the ability to interpret information and surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching the eye. The various physiological components involved in vision are referred to collectively as the visual system, and are the focus of much research in psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and molecular biology.
Perception is the process of obtaining awareness and understanding of sensory data. We take in something visually and then need to process what we see in order to find meaningful patterns in our visual environment in order to make decisions about what to do and how to respond.
Visual perception is a two-way street. We see small details in the environment and take them all in to see the whole. We also bring to our environment knowledge and specific goals that determine where we look and influence our interpretations.
Hermann von Helmholtz is often credited with the first study of visual perception in modern times. Helmholtz examined the human eye and concluded that it was, optically, rather poor. The poor-quality information gathered via the eye seemed to him to make vision impossible. He therefore concluded that vision could only be the result of some form of unconscious inferences: a matter of making assumptions and conclusions from incomplete data, based on previous experiences.
Gestalt psychologists working primarily in the 1930s and 1940s raised many of the research questions that are studied by vision scientists today.
The Gestalt Laws of Organization have guided the study of how people perceive visual components as organized patterns or wholes, instead of many parts. Gestalt is a German word that partially translates to “configuration or pattern” along with “whole or emergent structure.” According to this theory, there are seven main factors that determine how the visual system automatically groups elements into patterns: Proximity, Similarity, Closure, Symmetry, Figure and Ground Relationships, Common Fate and Good Continuation. (This actual grouping of factors varies from study to study but typically includes each of these seven in some way).
The result of attention paid to design elements arranged with Gestalt principles in mind is a design that has a clear message and is visually organized. The resulting groupings of elements and information creates a hierarchy of relative importance in that overall message. Sometimes this hierarchy can be manipulated in such a way that hidden or surprising results can occur. These creative manipulations can take the form of optical illusions, camouflage, or disguise.