Chances are that at some point, in art class or some other setting, you’ve heard mention of a concept called “compositional balance.” I hear this term used from time to time, but how many people really know what compositional “balance” IS? Artists, designers, and all those who work in the world of things visual are well versed in the principles of compositional balance. After all, it’s our “stock in trade.” Without an understanding of compositional balance, not a single design could be achieved. Well, not a good one, anyway.
On the face of it, it seems as though it’d be a simple concept, but there are many layers and subtleties involved. I often hear the term thrown about casually, and the truth of the matter is that it’s not all that well understood. As a designer, I’d like to have the proverbial “nickel for every time” I’ve heard the word “balance” used.
So let’s talk about compositional balance.
Artists and designers generally agree that there are three fundamental kinds of compositional balance. These are referred to as SYMMETRICAL, RADIAL, and ASYMMETRICAL.
The simplest description of symmetrical balance is that it involves placing equally-weighted objects directly opposite one another about a central axis. So, for example, the human body is bilaterally symmetrical in that we have a central axis and two arms and two legs. Any composition that involves centering all of the lines of type, for example, is symmetrical. We often see this arrangement on formal or authoritative items such as an invitation or a plaque.
A symmetrical composition is in many ways the simplest to achieve, and so is most turned to or relied upon by those who are less well-versed in visual composition. Symmetry can be very elegant and effective, so long as all of the elements within it are carefully balanced along the axis.
Radial balance can be described as similar to the spokes of a wheel, or what we see in a flower. In radial balance, the center is the focal point of the composition, and the secondary elements are arrayed around that central point. The arrangement of traditional business cards could be described as radial: typically with the company name in the middle and then the other information set into each of the corners of the card. I sometimes call this the “spin-art school” of business card design. It’s a perfectly valid arrangement, quite suitable for many situations, and is traditional for lawyers and doctors, for example. But it can also be rather static and uninteresting, which is why I rarely employ this kind of balance in the design of a business card.
Radial balance can, however, make it difficult to express a sense of “hierarchy” in a design, wherein the elements are arranged so as to make clear what items are more important and which are secondary (or tertiary!) to the viewer’s attention. With business cards, to continue our example, many businesses today want a more dynamic, modern, “fashion-forward” look that bespeaks their ability to think outside the box, or that projects flexibility, sophistication, and agility.
Asymmetrical, or “informal” balance is in many ways the most difficult to achieve. It demands more of both the designer and the viewer in terms of understanding the subtleties as well as the complexities of visual art. Although we see it around us every day, asymmetry involves another level of balance that can take place between unlike or dissimilar elements. For this reason, asymmetrical balance can seem the most “intimidating” to the uninitiated.
Asymmetrical balance takes rigorous advantage of the “white space” or “negative space” as well as the relative factors of shape, color, size, location, and proximity between objects in a composition, and can balance larger or more dominant attention-getting elements with one or more secondary elements. Arranging the objects in an asymmetrical balance involves a “fulcrum-like,” or “landscape-like” vision where elements play off of one another in a dynamic way that involves visual “tension” while at the same time achieving – in the aggregate – a balance or harmony between them. Areas of visual “calm” may be played off of areas of visual “activity.” Large elements may be balanced by a cluster of smaller elements.
Asymmetry helps a designer to elucidate or delineate what’s more or less important for the viewer’s attention. If an asymmetrical composition is even a little “off,” the effect can be unsettling. But if it is achieved well, the result is dynamic, energetic, and visually interesting. Sometimes it is the artist’s choice to make the composition deliberately unsettling, and this is an artist’s prerogative based in the effect they wish to have on the viewer of their work. Masterful asymmetry is a marvel to behold. A classic example of this would be the works of Alexander Calder, whose mobiles are (both literally and visually) beautifully balanced in their asymmetry.
There is an excellent article by Richard Poulin about asymmetrical balance posted on the design site rockpaperink.com, and excerpted from his book, The Language of Graphic Design: An Illustrated Handbook for Understanding Fundamental Design Principles [ISBN 1-59253-676-X].
Since in my opinion no one could have stated this better, I quote Mr. Poulin here:
“Asymmetrical balance is informal and generally more active and dynamic than symmetrical balance. While symmetrical balance is achieved through repetition, asymmetrical balance is completely dependent upon contrast and counterpoint in a composition. It results from combining contrasting design elements, such as point, line, shape, form, and color, evenly distributed along an axis of a composition. Asymmetry is also a compositional state where elements are organized in a nonsystematic and organic manner to achieve visual balance.
This type of visual balance relies upon the critical interaction and integrity of compositional elements and negative space, as well as their location and proximity to one another, to create tension, balance, and meaning in any visual communication. These types of balanced compositions are inherently active and kinetic, and communicate the same to the viewer. Asymmetrical compositions require a more disciplined and analytical eye due to their unique and ever-changing spatial requirements. Here the graphic designer has to constantly and consistently evaluate and assess potential compositional solutions based on spatial relationships varying from element to element and size to size, whether positive or negative, figure or ground.
In visual communications, the graphic designer’s reliance on the principle of asymmetry in creating asymmetrical compositions increases the viewer’s ability to organize, differentiate, and interact with a broad range of visual content.”
So the next time your designer presents you with a composition that appears nontraditional or more “adventuresome” than you might at first consider, take a step back and have another look. And have some faith in your designer’s skill to create an effective and dynamic asymmetrical composition for YOUR business communications.