Discover why balance is so important in art and design, and how you can apply the four types of balance to your own creative projects.
Balance is the way visual elements are arranged on a layout, and is one of the key principles of graphic design and art. With the ability to help images feel stable and more aesthetically pleasing, balance is an extremely effective way to instantly improve the appeal of your images.
Applying formal balance or informal balance can be used as a technique for creating a balanced composition. Although the elements making up an image don’t have physical mass, balance assigns these elements with a visual weight, allowing some to feel heavier or lighter than others. If you ever looked at an image and thought something felt a little “off,” but couldn’t quite define why, it’s likely that poor consideration of balance is a factor. Similarly, an image that’s pleasant to look at will likely use one of four types of balance—symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, or crystallographic—to produce a professional result.
A sometimes forgotten design principle, established artists will often apply balance instinctively. However, we can all benefit from a little education in balance to make our designs, photos, and illustrations the best and most balanced they can be. Read on to discover how you can apply the four types of balance to your own projects to create compelling images.
What Is Balance in Art?
Balance is the distribution of elements in a design or artwork. The human eye is always seeking order and stability in images. It’s the psychological reason behind why we’re attracted to symmetrical faces and objects. By assigning elements in an image with visual weight, we can promote a sense of balance and stability, helping to relax the eye and make the image feel more appealing.
Although balance appears in some prehistoric and early art, the principle of balance was formalized by artists working during the Renaissance period. Leonardo DaVinci was particularly renowned for his striving for balance in paintings like The Last Supper and his famous drawing, Vitruvian Man (“Proportions of the Human Body”). DaVinci based the latter drawing on the teachings of the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who argued that the proportions of a temple should reflect those of the human body, which he believed to be perfectly proportioned.
Does Balance Always Imply Symmetry?
While balance might bring symmetrical balance immediately to mind, symmetry is in fact only one of four types of balance in art and design. Having said that, the principle of symmetry certainly influences the other three types, as each type strives to mimic the effect of symmetry on the brain.
For example, while an asymmetrical image can’t be split down the middle and produce a mirror image on either side, the fact that the heavier and lighter elements strive to balance each other (e.g. two light elements to one heavy element) replicates the stabilizing effect that symmetry has on the viewer.
There are four main types of balance that can be applied in art, design, and photography, of which symmetry is one. The four types are:
- Symmetrical balance
- Asymmetrical balance
- Radial balance
- Crystallographic (or Mosaic) balance
Read on to find out more about each type and how you can use them to make your images feel more attractive, compelling, and balanced.
1. Symmetrical Balance
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What Is Symmetrical Balance?
Symmetrical balance is achieved by giving equal weight to elements across the center-point of a composition. The center-point can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. The result is a repetitive or mirrored (referred to as perfectly symmetrical) image that appears to be completely equally balanced. An example of formal balance, symmetry promotes a highly organized and balanced composition.
How Do I Use Symmetrical Balance?
Remember creating symmetrical “squish” paintings at school? These effortless designs demonstrate how symmetry is an instant beautifier, able to transform a messy painting into a beautiful mirrored image.
Symmetry is innately attractive—we’re hard-wired to find symmetrical faces more appealing, for example. Whether this is due to evolutionary theory telling us to seek out a healthy mate, or simply because we like to impose order on a largely unstructured and random world, it’s clear that almost everybody finds symmetrical images more pleasing to look at.
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One of the most helpful uses of symmetry is that it can tidy images that are flawed or messy. This type of balance works particularly well for wide layouts, such as full-width web designs, allowing the designer to repeat an image across and enhance an awkward area. In symmetrical images, the eye is also drawn towards the point of mirroring, usually in the center of the image. A symmetrical image might be a good framing technique for placing headings, calls-to-action, or clickable buttons, for example.
While symmetrical balance is attractive and sought-after, it’s also omnipresent in visual culture, meaning that symmetrical images can become like white noise. Try enlivening an otherwise symmetrical image with a point of difference, such as a different color on one side of the design. This will help keep the viewer’s eye active and the image engaging.
You can use symmetrical balance to:
- Create a sense of formality, order and perfection in your images.
- Bring quaintness and an almost childlike quality to photographs (similarly to the style of Accidentally Wes Anderson).
- Impose a strict order on elements that might have curved, organic or random forms or details.
Symmetrical Balance Examples
You can see symmetrical balance in action across a huge range of art and design, from traditional Renaissance paintings to font design. Symmetrical balance is a type of formal balance that instantly creates appealing images, and easy symmetrical balance in art can be achieved in just a few simple steps. A great technique for polishing images, simply cropping or adjusting the proportions of an image can enhance their symmetry and promote a more orderly effect.
Symmetrical balance in photography is particularly effective for images which already feature symmetrical or near-symmetrical elements, such as architectural facades, face-on portraits or patterned textures. For interior design, symmetry can bring a sense of calm and formal balance to a space—try placing two chairs either side of a painting or use geometric elements, such as windows or screens, to create a symmetrical framing effect for a room.
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2. Asymmetrical Balance
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What Is Asymmetrical Balance?
Asymmetrical balance occurs when the elements on a layout are different, but by being equally weighted still feel balanced. There might be two elements with a similar weight but different shapes, or one larger, heavier element balanced by a couple of lesser focal points. Compared to symmetry, asymmetrical balance can produce images with varying levels of attractiveness, but generally they make for more interesting, dynamic images. A type of informal balance, asymmetry can take a little practice to get right, but the results are well worth it.
How Do I Use Asymmetrical Balance?
Compared to symmetry, striking the perfect asymmetrical balance can require a little more experimentation and skill. However, perfecting the technique can lead to images which feel thoroughly modern, energetic, and engaging. If symmetry was the soothing perfection of the 1950s, asymmetry is more like the off-kilter spirit of the 1960s. Both eras have their own design merits, but there’s something a little more intriguing and refreshing about images that feel a little off-beat.
Asymmetrical balance is all about being confident and playful with the scale, color, and form of elements on the layout. The idea is to keep the eye engaged because the image isn’t symmetrical, while still promoting an overall sense of balance. If two elements are too similar to each other, they risk appearing like a poorly executed interpretation of symmetrical balance. Try scaling up one element and scaling down others for high contrast, or using brighter colors on a smaller element to make it feel equalized to larger, duller elements.
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Distance can also play a role in promoting asymmetrical balance. A large, heavy element that can be perceived as being further away or lower down than a smaller, lighter element will give a sense of correctness to the overall image. The distance and/or hierarchy helps the smaller element to not feel overwhelmed, creating an image that’s playful and balanced. Everyone wins!
You can use asymmetrical balance to:
- Even out the visual weight of differently-sized elements, to create an overall balanced composition.
- Create a sense of intrigue and challenge in your image, as the eye must work a little harder to process the image.
- Establish a hierarchy of elements in your image, by leading the eye purposefully from one element to another. This is a common technique used across graphic design and web design.
Asymmetrical Balance Examples
A form of informal balance, asymmetrical balance can create dynamic and energetic images that still maintain a sense of order.
Asymmetrical balance examples range from jaunty street photography to Swiss-style graphic design, which often use asymmetry to create a sense of movement in an image or layout. For example, a poster design might balance a smaller graphic in the bottom corner of the page with a larger graphic at the top. In this way, the graphic elements balance each other, with the larger element owning less visual weight when placed as if “floating” above the smaller element.
3. Radial Balance
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What Is Radial Balance?
One of the more unusual types of balance in art, the principle of radial balance is inspired by spiral patterns often seen in nature. Water ripples, the inside of shells, and rays of sunlight all have a hypnotic, calming quality. These types of images use radial balance to draw the eye towards a central focal point. Elements radiate from the center equally, creating a balanced, soothing layout.
How Do I Use Radial Balance?
Radial balance often naturally occurs in the environment—waves, whirlpools, tree rings, and flower petals are all examples of this beautiful form of balance. In graphic design, spirals are the best way to achieve radial balance, and these can also be a useful technique for drawing the eye’s attention towards the center of the image. Sales flyers and event posters often use the principle of radial balance by using circular frames or borders to draw a customer’s attention to an offer or date.
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In photography, close-up shots of plants and flowers often reveal an innate radial balance, making for serene and naturally beautiful images. Illustrators can create their own spiral designs demonstrating radial balance, with circular optical illusions taking the principle of radial balance and exaggerating its hypnotic effect to the extreme.
Radial balance is also a useful technique that can be employed in interior design. Find out more below.
You can use radial balance to:
- Draw the eye towards a central focal point on a design, or lead a viewer on a particular pathway.
- Visually “hypnotize” the viewer by drawing the eye further inwards while maintaining a continuous, balanced flow.
Radial Balance Examples
Radial balance can help you to create a balanced composition that emphasizes the idea of pathways and continuation rather than block elements. If we take the idea of pathways, the principle of radial balance can be used as a more abstract idea, as well as referencing spiral or circular forms more explicitly. For example, in web design you can use a flowing pathway to lead the user’s journey across the page, or you can flow one spiral into another to create a hypnotic design for a poster or logo.
Photographs that use radial balance have a mesmerizing effect on the viewer, and the effect can be emphasized by cropping the image more closely to the spiral.
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4. Crystallographic Balance
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What Is Crystallographic Balance?
Crystallographic (or mosaic) balance is achieved by giving equal weight to a large number of elements. The result isn’t a perfectly symmetrical pattern, but a type of balanced chaos in which several different elements combine into a unified whole. Because the eye can’t locate a single focal point on a crystallographic image, the viewer is tricked into accepting the image as a balanced whole, even though there might be a multitude of differing and random elements.
How Do I Use Crystallographic Balance?
You can promote mosaic balance in your designs and photographs by cramming the layout with different elements. Layouts that are too sparse will allow the eye to locate individual items, diluting the effect.
Think of Jackson Pollack paintings. Although his work is chaotic and diverse in nature, the overall effect is of a calm and uniform whole. You can use different or similar elements and repeat them to create a crystallographic effect. These types of images are often read by the eye as being like background noise, so they work well as backgrounds and backdrops for other prominent graphics or typography.
You can use crystallographic balance to:
- Promote an “ordered chaos” effect that brings balance to busy images.
- Create detailed backgrounds and textures that will appear as a uniform whole to the viewer, and can be layered with other elements as a result, such as type or logos.
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Crystallographic Balance Examples
The idea of crystallographic balance is to have as many elements as you like, as long as there is some element of consistency between them. Perhaps a photograph is an overhead shot of a herd of migrating animals. In this case the color consistency and similarity of direction of the animals gives the impression of a uniform whole. Arranging elements in an evenly spaced pattern format is another technique that can give the impression of crystallographic balance.
You can often see crystallographic balance used on landscape photography, pattern design, website backgrounds, and architectural photography.
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How to Use the 4 Types of Balance in Design Projects
Balance is a design principle that can apply across a wide range of projects and disciplines, from photography to interior design. Read on to find some discipline-specific tips for photographers and designers looking to use types of balance in art and design projects.
What is Balance in Photography?
Photographers can use the four types of balance to enhance a variety of characteristics, from stability to energy, focus to scale. For portraits, symmetrical balance can work well for enhancing near-symmetrical features, such as hair, eyes, or earrings. Asymmetrical balance can be used to create more interest within a portrait, as well as enhancing a sense of shallow focus for an ethereal effect. Or why not experiment with crystallographic balance, using multiple elements to create a quirky effect, like in the image at below right?
From top-right, clockwise: Symmetrical balance, crystallographic balance or asymmetrical balance can be used to give widely different effects to portrait photographs. License these images via Djomas, yngsa, and Kuznetsov Alexey.
In landscape or architectural photography the four types of balance can be used to enhance existing building features, such as windows or repetitive facades, or impose a sense of order on an otherwise random, organic landscape, such as fields or mountains.
How to Use Radial Balance in Interior Design
Radial balance is an insider secret used by professional interior designers to bring a sense of calm and cocoonment to spaces. Imagine you are looking at a room from overhead, with the furniture and furnishings arranged into a graduating spiral. At the center is the focal point of the room, drawing the eye towards the “hub” of the space.
Because it encourages users to gravitate towards the central part of the room, the radial balance technique is especially effective for social spaces such as living and dining rooms. You don’t necessarily need to use curved furniture to achieve the effect but organically-shaped chairs, rugs, and tables certainly help to give the illusion of a continuous spiral form.
The 4 Types of Balance in Art and Design
As innate order-seekers, humans always look to impose stability and pattern on visual images, which is why images that defy any potential for order will seem less aesthetically appealing, even unattractive. By purposefully using one of the four types of balance in your design projects, you increase the chances of making your image appear stable and balanced, and more aesthetically pleasing as a result.
So when you next look at one of your images, whether it’s a photo, poster, or interior space, try to assess whether symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, or crystallographic balance could improve the overall look and feel of the space. You’ll feel much more in balance as a result!
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