Preattentive Attributes and Gestalt Principles

by Adam Sultanov

Part of our job as Data Analysts and Tableau experts is to reveal insights in data by displaying it visually. Creating effective charts and dashboards means balancing density of information with the principles of visual design. Luckily, those who have come before us have studied these principles extensively and broken them down into their atomic parts. We have learned at the Data School how these fundamentals impact perception – even before we consciously process visual information.

Preattentive Attributes

Preattentive attributes are exactly what they sound like: characteristics that we perceive before we have focused our attention that influence how we categorize information. The main categories of these attributes are form, color, position, and movement. The use of form includes things like using size, shape, and orientation to group or differentiate elements.

The use of color relates to the relative hue, intensity, or brightness of colors in a visualization.

The way elements are positioned also informs the way we perceive interconnected data.

Movement can mean literal motion like moving or blinking elements, but can also apply when implied motion links elements together.

Geese flying in a V pattern
Josh Massey via Unsplash

Gestalt Principles

The gestalt principles are a psychological framework developed in the early 20th century centering on theories of perception. They include proximity, similarity, closure, enclosure, and continuity. These are all ways we can subtly imply that elements should be grouped together or are similar in some way.

Proximity and similarity:

Closure, enclosure, and continuity:

Understanding preattentive attributes and gestalt principles will allow us to improve our visualizations and communicate more effectively with our audience.

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