If you’re a designer or artist trying to wrap your head around what balance is all about, you’re not alone. Balance is sometime obvious, sometimes not, but always necessary for a design to work well. I got a question from a reader about this topic and so wanted to give you the basics of visual balance.
In visual design— whether it’s illustration, graphic design, photography — balance is one way forms and space relate to each other. It deals with the positioning and proportion of elements in a design as they relate to each other and also to the entire design space.
Balance is an innate, fundamental human expectation. We need balance. When we are out of balance physically, we know it right away. We aim for work–life balance, eat a balanced diet, and require it in our visual perception. We sense and respond to balance intuitively and are immediately aware of the lack of it. So, why is balance so often a struggle for visual artists and designers to understand and apply?
The answer, I think, lies in what we think balance looks like. A majority of students coming into my design fundamentals classes know what symmetry looks like, and have the idea that, unless something’s symmetrical, it’s not balanced. They just need to expand their thinking.
Balance is used to unify a design
Balance is one way of establishing order. It addresses our understanding of visual weight — the apparent lightness or heaviness of a color, shape or form.
Balanced designs look and feel stable. We are able to trust them and enjoy them. Everything is in the right place and working together.
Unbalanced designs are unsettling, and in viewing them, we will tend to want to shift things around until they fall into place. We have a psychological sense that something isn’t right — it’s out of order. When something’s out of order we become uneasy.
Elements can be balanced by size, complexity, color, and direction. This applies to both two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. A small dark shape can be stabilized by a larger, lighter shape. An area of smooth texture will balance an area of rough texture. Positive shape should be balanced by negative space.
In two-dimensional design, we use visual balance only. In three-dimensional design, where we work with real space, balance is both visual and physical.
People tend to automatically balance themselves. Think about how you do this when walking, sitting and standing. The way in which we physically balance ourselves relates to visual balance. We can be symmetrical, asymmetrical or approximately symmetrical. And sometimes we’re radially balanced, like in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man. In this photo I took at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the girl is asymmetrically balanced on a symmetrically-balanced chair. The angle of her spine and shoulders counter-balance the angle of her hips and legs.
Five ways to balance a design
In visual design, establish an axis as an understood reference point as the basis for how you balance and organize the space. The axis is needed to create the required dividing line between one side and the other.
We can think of the axis as a fulcrum, like on a playground seesaw. To keep the seesaw level, weight needs to be distributed equally on both sides of the axis. When the weight is unequal, the heavier side of the seesaw will drop, allowing things to slide off.
These are the five ways to balance your artwork. You can begin by figuring out what balance you want to achieve, but more often than not, balance is established as you develop your design. You’re going to include one or more of these five types of visual balance.
Symmetry is also known as bilateral symmetry or formal balance. Objects are directly mirrored on either side of the axis.
Approximate symmetry is a less rigid variation on symmetry. For the most part objects are directly reflected on either side of the axis, but with small differences. A playing card uses approximate symmetry.
In asymmetry, dissimilar objects are balanced on either side of the axis through weight, position and direction. Asymmetry is also known as informal balance. While we often use the word asymmetry to mean an inequity or lack of balance, in reality it does balances greater with lesser, larger with smaller, more with less, dark with light, tall with wide, etc. It is a complex system in which each participating element play a role in support of and in unity with all other parts in the roles they play.
We can compare symmetry and asymmetry using the analogy of a seesaw:
Symmetry: one average-sized adult sitting on one end will balance a same-sized adult sitting on the other end. Both are sitting the same distance from the fulcrum.
Approximate symmetry: one average-sized adult sitting on one end will balance a same-sized adult sitting on the other end. One has her arms raised. The other’s arms are lowered. Both are sitting the same distance from the fulcrum.
Asymmetry:, one average-sized adult sitting on one end will balance two or three children sitting on the other end. Or, one average-sized adult sitting close to the fulcrum will balance one child sitting far away from the fulcrum.
Radial balance uses two or more non-parallel axes that intersect at or near the same point. The angle at which they meet does not matter. The point of intersection is an automatic visual focal point. The elements being balanced revolve around this central point.
This type of balance is commonly found in nature but is also common in the design vocabulary of human culture, from Tibetan mandalas to Gothic rosette windows.
Radial balance is also referred to as radial symmetry.
Crystallographic balance uses multiple parallel axes distributed evenly across the design surface. The entire surface is treated the same way, equalizing visual weight across the surface. Think of it as multiple parallel or intersecting axes distributed throughout a design. Allover patterns and surface design are common applications for crystallographic balance.
What type of balance should you use?
There are various ways to balance a design, meaning there is more than one kind of balance. What kind of balance you use depends largely on the purpose of your design.
Creating balance is a combination of knowledge, perception and “feeling”. If something feels unbalanced to you, it probably is. Unbalance can be blatant or subtle. In either case, we will have a sense of discomfort with it.
What kind of balance, or combination of, you should use depends upon what you want your design, photo or artwork to achieve. Asymmetry is dynamic and, when done well, very engaging to look at. It creates a sense of energy and movement. Symmetry, on the other hand, is quiet and static.
An example of the use of symmetry to create a quiet, restful retreat is in this bath suite. The axis is diagrammed in the image on the right.
Just know that balance is based on how you compose your design and should fit what you want to communicate — its mood, personality, and energy level. What you don’t want is for your work to be unbalanced.
Your turn: What questions do you have about visual balance? What other design principles do you want to know about? Use the comments section below.