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, which is the way visual elements are arranged on a layout, is one of the key principles of graphic design and art, helping an image to feel stable and generally pleasing to look at.
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 was a little off about it, 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.
An oft-neglected design principle, established artists will often apply balance instinctively, but we can all benefit from a little education in balance to make our designs, photos, and illustrations the best 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 Mean 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
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.
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.
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.
2. Asymmetrical Balance
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.
How Do I Use Asymmetrical Balance?
Compared to symmetry, striking the perfect asymmetrical balance can require a little more experimentation and skill. However, the result can be 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.
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!
3. Radial Balance
What Is Radial Balance?
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—ripples, 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 through circular frames or borders to draw a customer’s attention to an offer or date.
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 which demonstrate radial balance, with circular optical illusions taking the principle of radial balance and exaggerating its hypnotic effect to the extreme.
4. Crystallographic Balance
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 cannot 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 also afford to be playful with scale and proportion. Slightly enlarged elements won’t overwhelm smaller ones when combined into a busy mosaic layout. In fact, a heady combination of randomly sized elements can actually make the image feel more appealing and natural. You can also use a similar or complementary color scheme to pull mosaic images together, making them feel even more balanced.
Balance is one of the principles that underpin how appealing we find art or designs, but it’s often taken for granted. With a little more know-how about the different types of balance and how these can affect the impact of images, you can create images that feel…just right!
Eager to learn more about the theory of design? From how to use the color black with impactful effect, to the ultimate guide to using the Golden Ratio, don’t miss these tutorials and articles:
- The Ultimate Guide to the Golden Ratio and How to Apply It to Your Designs
- Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black
- Complete Guide to Color in Design: Color Meaning, Color Theory, and More
- 5 Ideas for Using Abstract Art in Your Website Designs
- Design Trend: Abstract Geometry, a Historically Modern Style
Cover image by contributor First_emotion.