Design 101: Asymmetrical and Symmetrical Balance
When it comes to creating art, or designing a practical piece such as a calling card or a cover letter template, balance is rather important both for aesthetic and professional reasons. We are naturally attracted to well-balanced pieces of art, architecture and naturally occurring sights and events, and throughout our history, we’ve been trying to emulate the principles of balance.
Yet despite the need for symmetry, we often purposefully destroy the visual equilibrium, shake up the conventional norm and create something different, either for the sake of variety or to take a stand and deliver a message in a stronger, more dynamic way.
I this text we will learn about the nature of balance, see its effect in our surroundings and artworks, and discuss the differences between the two types of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical.
BALANCE IN NATURE AND ART
When it comes to art, we may say that balance represents the purposeful organization of visual elements of varying weight. When we say weight, we are referring to the overall shape, form, and significance of a particular visual element. Combining these elements into a cohesive unit, whether that unit is a painting, a sculpture, or a wedding invitation is how we create artworks.
Balance can be found everywhere in the physical world, in greater or lesser degrees, and great masters have been implementing it in their work since forever. In nature, we will usually recognize the objects which are able to carry their own weight as balanced. Imbalanced objects are easy to topple.
To illustrate balance in the simplest of terms, we may use the see-saw as an example. If we place two people of more or less equal weight and size, the beam would be in the state of balance, with weight equally distributed on its two sides, and equally distanced from the center of the balance or the fulcrum. This center of balance is also the center of the composition of an artwork or a design.
However, if we place two persons of different weights on the see-saw, one smaller and one larger, the beam of the see-saw would be off balance. The only way to balance the beam would be to either move the larger person towards the fulcrum until the balance is reached or to place another smaller person on the other side of the see-saw.
This is applicable in terms of design as well. When we say that a visual item has greater or lesser weight, we are referring to its ability to draw out attention. If our attention is held mostly on one particular visual object then we say that that object has a greater visual weight.
Thus, in an art piece such as a painting, visual weight is what replaces the physical weight of the object depicted, while the visual direction is what replaces the direction we position objects in real life in order to achieve balance, much like in the case of the see-saw.
Visual weight is of crucial importance when it comes to the emphasizing the elements of your design. Usually, the greater the visual weight, the greater the importance of the object portrayed. If all the parts of your design are of equal weight, you will present a balanced, engaging, aesthetically pleasing composition.
This is not applied to objects alone, but on living creatures as well.
Observe the wings of a butterfly – they are vividly colored and fragile, and both wings are colored in the very same way, the patterns and shapes matching perfectly. This is an example of balance in nature.
Trees, however, follow their own path. The branches are seemingly growing haphazardly, and rarely will one see a tree perfectly balanced in terms of shape. But there are cases of a more balanced “design”, of course.
In normal circumstances, balance is a desirable feature to have in one’s artwork, but sometimes, a stronger message can be sent by disregarding the principles of balance and making one’s art asymmetrical and imbalanced. Thus, the choice is truly between a classical, stable, formal expression vs. a more modern, dynamic expression, as exemplified in the two types of balance we will explore within this text.
Symmetrical balance is a type of visual balance where a work of art is composed in such a way that all visual objects are equally distanced from the central axis, or the central point, of the design. And not only that – the objects from both sides of the axis look the same, only as reflected in a mirror.
Remember the butterfly – the design of its wings is an example of the symmetrical balance found in nature, where all the opposing shapes are counterparts of one another and are in perfect proportion. And such near-perfect symmetry has always been considered as aesthetically pleasing, even today.
However, such perfect symmetry is actually very rare. The most common type of symmetrical balance is the so-called near symmetry we see in a human face. The left and the right side match seemingly perfectly, but there may be slight variations, more or less noticeable.
In the case of design and art in general, symmetrical balance is fairly easy to accomplish and is much more prominent than in nature.
Observe, for instance, the marvelous Taj Mahal, one of the most cited examples of perfect symmetrical balance in architecture. All the details match one another on both sides of this majestic construction. There is not a single object taking the spotlight, or ruining the overall impression of purest harmony – a perfectly balanced display of craftsmanship and artistic taste.
The symmetry of the visual objects tells us that we should focus on the building as a whole, not on any particular visual object. Thus arranged, the symmetrical design gives off the feeling of serenity and classical elegance.
Another notable example of symmetrical balance is Da Vinci’s Proportion of a Human. This work as well, once cut in half along the central axis, would have the objects of the two sides match each other perfectly as if reflected by a mirror. Da Vinci’s work also serves the perfect proportions of the human body, which was such a prominent motif in classical art.
Thus, symmetrical balance is usually found in the traditional forms of art, its other name is “the formal balance”. It gives us the feeling of stability of form and structure, but also of peace and harmony. However, symmetrical balance is often considered to be a bit dull and boring by some critics.
If you wish to create an event invitation, an aforementioned calling card or a logo, designing a symmetrically balanced item would be a preferred option. However, if you’re working on more creative objects, consider using some more dynamic options.
TYPES OF SYMMETRY
Here are the basic types of balance for you to use in order to create your design:
1. Reflection symmetry
Reflection symmetry (otherwise known as bilateral symmetry) is the type of symmetry we were refereeing to earlier in the text while explaining Taj Mahal and the Proportion of the Man. This type of symmetry is what comes to mind most often when one mentions the word symmetry.
The central axis (or the central point, or the fulcrum of the composition) can be positioned in any way, vertically or horizontally, and it does not influence the symmetry in any way. Symmetry over multiple axes is also observed in nature. The best example for that would be the perfect shape of a snowflake.
In the most perfect form of this sort of symmetry, there are no variations whatsoever between the two halves of the composition. Thus, this form is called “pure symmetry”.
Pure symmetry is very rare in nature, for in the majority of cases variations can be found. If we remember the aforementioned example of the human face, we will see that both sides are the same, but if we look carefully, we may see that, for example, the left corner of one’s lips is curved upwards just slightly more than the right one.
Our bodies are symmetrical as well, and yet, some people are left-handed, while most have their right side more developed, thus making it the dominant one.
This sort of reflection symmetry is called the near symmetry.
2. Rotational Symmetry
Rotational (radial) symmetry can be observed when visual objects of a composition perfectly rotate around the center of the composition. As long as they share the same center, distance, frequency, and angle of visual objects, rotational symmetry exists.
In nature, this type of symmetry can be seen in the shape of the petals of many types of flowers, most notably daisies and sunflowers. When it comes to art, some of the best examples of how artists use rotational symmetry is making clay pots and vases – an art form thousands of years old. Some of the most beautiful stained glass windows of cathedrals are rotationally symmetrical.
3. Translational Symmetry
This type of symmetry occurs when we repeatedly use the same type of visual elements in different parts of the composition. Repetition is what carries the symmetry, and the best example of this type of symmetry is – the fence post. This form of symmetry is perfect for creating sound, speed, and action in your design.
Translational symmetry can be applied in all directions as long as the basic orientation of the visual objects remains unchanged.
4. Glide Reflectional Symmetry
Glide reflectional symmetry can often be observed. If we walk over a sandy beach, a soft patch of ground or a snowy area, we leave our footprints behind us. And as we already know, footprints are usually symmetrical to one another, yet, the footprints may slightly differ.
You can apply this type of symmetry when designing your composition in the following way. Make a copy of a visual object, but move the copy so it is not positioned against the original. Instead, move it in another direction, or invert it, or make it seem like it is fading away, and thus create the illusion of movement.
Asymmetrical balance happens when you organize the composition in a seemingly chaotic way (visual objects of varying weights are not mirror images of one another), and yet, a sense of balance is somehow still present.
This may be accomplished in various ways. For example, you may place a visual object of great weight on one side of your composition, then balance it with a number of smaller ones on the other. This will make your composition more dynamic and modern and might help you deliver your message with greater effect.
Remember: darker and larger objects have more weight than smaller and lighter objects, so take these criteria into consideration while creating your design.
Asymmetrical images attract more attention due to the more complex relationship between objects used to create the composition. Thus, this type of balance tends to be more interesting – the harmonious expression of symmetrically balanced compositions tend to be somewhat passive, while designers using asymmetrically balanced designs usually do not need to worry about maintaining the attention of the audience.
When looking for examples of asymmetrically designed compositions, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is one of the most impressive variants of this design. The bright moon on the top right corner is balanced by the dark cypress trees on the bottom left side of the painting.
The stars and the clouds on the upper half of the painting are balanced by the detailed portrayal of the town on the bottom half of the painting. Just like the moon and the cypress trees balance each other through the contrasting relationship of light and dark, the same can be said for this as well.
Symmetrical designs, when compared to the asymmetrical ones, are often perceived as dull and predictable. With asymmetrical designs, you can play with shapes in unpredictable ways, create patterns with greater flexibility, and still, these seemingly haphazard organizations can make a lot of sense and tell your story with great strength and impact.
Bear in mind, however, that, although you gain a greater freedom of expression, creating asymmetrically balanced designs may prove more challenging than creating a symmetrically balanced design.
A poorly balanced composition induces a feeling of tension as if a painting could tip on one side and fall. You do not wish to over-saturate your design with randomly positioned visual items!
TYPES OF ASYMMETRICAL DESIGN
There are several ways you can use asymmetrical design in your compositions. Some of those include the following techniques:
- Arrangement by color – human eyes are naturally drawn by color. Artists use this trait of ours when creating asymmetrical designs to balance larger areas of more neutral colors with small areas of vivid, bright colors.
- Arrangement by shape and value – as we have mentioned above, visual objects of light colors and small size have less weight than larger, darker visual objects. Several smaller, lighter objects can be used to counterbalance one larger, darker object. Large, empty areas of a composition can, thus, be balanced by smaller, intricately detailed areas.
- Arrangement by texture – an area rich with color fluctuations and different textures can be balanced by a smooth area of the composition without any remarkable texture variations.
- Arrangement by eye direction – A spectator’s eye can be easily directed into one direction or another, depending on the way you organize your design.
Triangular shapes can naturally be used as pointers, and people on a painting or a photograph looking at a certain point will naturally draw your attention towards that point.
Also if they are pointing in some direction we will feel inclined to look that way ourselves and see just what they are pointing at.
It makes us curious, and it’s an efficient way to draw the spectator’s attention to the key element of your design.
As we can see, asymmetrically and symmetrically balanced designs can be used in very distinct ways.
If you’re in need of a more formal, harmonious, aesthetically-pleasing structure, using symmetrically-balanced design would be a good course of action. However, do not forget that sometimes the calm and serenity of this type of design may not be as remarkable as you may need it to be.
As beautiful as it may be, it may at times come up as too passive and formulaic.
If you’re trying to create an impactful, dynamic composition, asymmetrically balanced design is the right choice, as long as you mind your way of organizing and creating your composition. Scattering visual objects randomly may do the exact opposite of what you require, so tread carefully.
Please, consider carefully both of these approaches to creating your design, measure their pros and cons, and choose wisely!
Hopefully, this article gave you some insight into two frequently used instances in the world of artists- asymmetry and symmetry.
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