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We all know visual alignment is one of the foundations of design. Everything must be aligned with everything else.
We also know that when things are aligned it is easier to process information. My question is why?

Nothing in nature is "aligned". What's the anthropological/biology reason why humans prefer aligned information?

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migrated from ux.stackexchange.com Jun 22 '12 at 13:10

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Check out Gestalt Psychology, alignment, even when rough, is how we find patterns for things –  Ben Brocka Jun 22 '12 at 13:41
I asked this question and got a great reference which has led me to a few more articles once I knew more about what to search for: cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/522/… –  Ryan Jun 22 '12 at 18:02
Has this question been sufficiently answered, or are you looking for further thoughts? If it is the former then will you consider accepting one of the answers? –  Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 14 '12 at 14:33
@ArtemKaznatcheev No response actually brings light on why we prefer things to be aligned, only the realization of such fact (for example, Gestalt principle). –  Gonçalo Veiga Oct 16 '12 at 10:15

5 Answers 5

One of the main reasons related to the 'Gestalt principles'

  • Law of Proximity Objects near each other tend to be grouped together.
  • Law of Similarity Similar items tend to be grouped together.
  • Law of Closure Objects grouped together are seen as a whole.
  • Law of Continuity Lines are seen as following the smoothest path.
  • Law of Common Region Items in similar areas tend to be grouped together.
  • Law of Connectedness Items that are connected are seen as groups.

This is a nice summary from the article referenced below:

Coupling emotional and behavioral triggers in some form of cognitive grouping — whether by proximity, similarity or something else — strengthens the motivation to act on the behavioral cue.

I'd add to this: We feel more comfortable when perceiving something expected. When something breaks this (such as misalignment), it causes stress because there is a gap between our expectations (as the principles outline) and our experience.


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Given the OP's request for an explanation as to why we prefer things as such I wonder whether you could add any references in order to substantiate your closing addition. –  Steven Jeuris Nov 15 '12 at 20:13

There are two related reasons, I believe for this:

  1. Relationship and connection. When things are aligned, we see then as connected and related. Nature does give us the guidance for things that are related and connected in other ways, but often by a degree of alignment or similarity. In UX terms, we indicate the relationships between items by positioning and similarlity, including alignment.

  2. Pattern matching. Our brains are awesome pattern matchers. However, if there is a misalignment, we try to see some meaning or pattern in the misalignment, when there probably isn't one. By aligning things, the pattern we see is one of order and similarity.

There is a degree of alignment in nature, and we do notice it. There is evidence that symmetrical faces are more attractive), because we like the alignments. It makes the UI look more attractive.

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Jay's answer is correct, this occurs as a result of Gestalt processing. I will address your comment that:

No response actually brings light on why we prefer things to be aligned, only the realization of such fact (for example, Gestalt principle).

But first I will say that I believe this assumption is wrong:

Nothing in nature is "aligned".

Many things in nature are aligned. The sides of my body are roughly parallel. The same with the sides of my arm, a tree trunk, a river, etc. In fact many Gestalt properties occur so often in nature, that they have been deemed "non-accidental" properties (Lowe, 1987; Witkin & Tenenbaum, 1983). The idea is that the probability of seeing, e.g., two parallel lines by chance alone would be extremely small if lines in nature had random orientation. But it's not rare, and so it must have some significance (e.g. they are part of the same object).

Jepson and Richards (1992) formalize this argument in a Bayesian framework, and show that statistical regularities in the environment (such as Gestalt features) make good "features" precisely because they are "non-accidental", and thus probably carry informational content.

Richards, W., & Jepson, A. (1992). What makes a good feature? (No. AIM-1356). MASSACHUSETTS INST OF TECH CAMBRIDGE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE LAB. PDF

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Nothing in nature is "aligned" - not really.

One of nature's marveling fact is that there is unity everywhere starting with the way a water drop is forced to be spherical, to the ice flakes being symmetrical, to cells coming together to form organ systems etc. I could go on.

Perhaps its that 'come together' = 'grow in life' got us till here in evolution :)

In fact we sometimes end up grouping unrelated things together, if they are nearby (ah! 'Gestalt principles').

Also if I remember my algorithm basics correctly, its easier to sort items that are grouped. Because then you know they form a 'pattern' (say sorting numbers in descending manner before applying some algorithm).

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Normally we design and design follows rules. If not we create art. Alignments follow a.) grids or patterns or b.) other objects (if we have not a grid) in X or Y (left, right, bottom, top, center).

And I would say everything in nature is aligned, but not in a symmetrical way. All life on earth is based in grids. Bubbles, cell structures, don´t forgot the the golden section, a relation which is very valuable. There are a lot of examples in bionics.

In UI we have to different reading directions from left to the right, or reversed, the same from the top to the left. The implication is, that we have to conduct the user with visual alignments.

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