The law of meaningfulness, also referred to as the law of familiarity, is a Gestalt principle of perceptual organization which observes the human tendency to group visual elements when they form a meaningful or personally relevant object, item or visual scene.
Gestalt Principles of Perceptual Organization
The Law of Familiarity/Meaningfulness
Everything we do is based on the meaningfulness of information fed through our perceptual organs. We have aims and goals, which direct our behaviour, but without the right information we are lost. While the world is a complex place, we are capable of identifying individual objects and determining which elements belong to one item and discerning them from elements that belong to another. Human perception is ‘wired’ to see whole objects first and foremost; what use would a mass of unconnected lines, curves, and environmental information be to us? Quite simply, none. If we are to interact accurately and safely with our environment it is essential that we are able to combine all of the elements transmitted from the eye to the brain, into meaningful, and distinct entities.
The unconscious, mental process of converting lines, curves and shapes into whole, meaningful objects represents one of the Gestalt laws of perceptual organisation, the ‘Law of Familiarity/Meaningfulness’. The words familiarity and meaningfulness are generally used interchangeably, as they both capture the perceptual bias to form mental representations that have some use or personal relevance. The principle of meaningfulness can be seen in action when we view the lines and shapes in the image above. On their own, the component elements mean very little, but we instantly see a stickman waving as he makes his way from a house in the distance. Perceptual organisation ensures we detect regularity and form when we could just as easily see objects, people etc as a series of disconnected and meaningless component shapes, lines and curves.
The Importance of Meaningfulness/Familiarity
Through experience we form mental representations for different objects, figures, animals and any other two-dimensional or three-dimensional form. These mental representations can be applied from one situation to another, either consciously or unconsciously. The unconscious simulation of an existing mental representation is referred to as recognition, which is a type of memory process occurring when a neural pattern associated with a previous event (e.g. seeing a dog) is excited by a new, similar instance (e.g. seeing another dog). Over time these neural patterns become ever more ‘hard-wired’, making us particularly sensitive to stimulation from new instances that might only bear slight resemblance to the existing mental representation. For example, we often see faces in inanimate objects, such as door handles and car bumpers. This usually occurs when the object(s) consists of two components at the top, such as dots, with a wider component underneath.
Examples of Meaningfulness/Familiarity
There are many examples that show human perception can be fooled into seeing meaningful representations when images or objects are ambiguous (see ambiguous images). However, from all of the principles of perceptual organisation, the law of meaningfulness is perhaps the most significant to our everyday lives. In every situation, we are flooded with sensory information and our ability to consolidate all of this information into a coherent and consistent impression of the world is vital to our existence. Therefore, the principle of meaningfulness allows us to place our trust in human perception and act according to the information processed in the mind, without having to constantly second guess whether we have formed accurate representations from the thousands of lines, curves, and shapes that form objects in both the physical and graphical worlds.
Source: Interaction Design Foundation