Saturday, May 24, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 27, Asymmetrical or Informal Balance

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now these days we've taken up the principle of Balance. And having established the concept of optical weight, and the way our page becomes a kind of balancing beam as we add visual elements to it, we turned our attention to the idea of Formal or Symmetrical balance. And we described this as a mirror image type of arrangement, where elements are symmetrically balanced on a page with respect to its central axis. And wee also pointed the implications of formal balance, the effect achieved by symmetry. Which is a feeling of equilibrium, and a sense of stasis and stability. And if I'm recapping too many concepts, too quickly, just take some time to listen to the previous programs, where I explain each idea in turn.

But moving on from there, the next concept we need to identify is Asymmetrical Balance, also called Informal Balance. And the typical example of this kind of balance is when one large element is counterbalanced by several smaller objects. Or if you'll recall the role of value that we described, we may have a situation where a smaller, dark object, is counterbalanced by a larger, light-colored object. At first glance, we might think these kinds of compositions aren't balanced, because they don't have the obvious symmetry that makes the situation feel all the more stable. But on closer examination, we realize that the teeter totter of our page is balanced, after all. And though the objects distributed on either side of the central axis may be very different from each other, the optical weight of each side appears to be about even.

An even more clever example of assymetrical balance is when a large object on one side of the page is balanced by a smaller object placed at the very far end of the opposite side, mimicking the physics of leverage.

But, as we explained last time, the visual designer is usually more concerned with the effects or implications of the type of balance being employed. And where we said last time that Formal balance imparts a conservative and a stable feeling to a composition, Informal balance, on the other hand, with its lack of symmetry, achieves quite the opposite. In fact, the effect is what I'd call a dynamic sense of order. And that's because there are differences in the page. While it feels resolved in terms of balance, it isn't equalized, the way water seeks its own level. And in that sense it's unresolved, but in a good way. It's got a dynamism, and so informal balance implies movement.

So, look around. Pay attention to compositions in ads and books and magazines. And you'll see what I mean. Those ads for Absolut Vodka, with their perfectly centered single bottle, and the perfectly centered caption are always symetrical and formally balanced. And that stable feeling we infer from those layouts is a good thing, because that bottle has never once appeared to be in danger of tipping over and spilling its contents in all the years that we've been seeing it. Then scout around some more and you'll typically see many more examples of informal balance, and while the pages feel stable enough, you'll notice the dynamism I'm talking about. They almost seem to move, they're dynamic. And you'll notice, that these layouts generally tend to be less staid and formal and conservative feeling.

Now, as a final note on this formal versus informal balance thing, I just want to be clear that my intent is not to pit one against the other, as if one is superior to the other. The decision to choose one over the other is often an intuitive one, but where we're very aware of our thought process, the decision should be based on suitability. It's about what kind of feeling we want to convey in the composition itself.

It's interesting to note that Jan Tschichold(1), one of the titans of typographic design, was the author of a landmark book titled, The New Typography, back in the 20s. And this was a modernist manifesto that, among other things, argued for the superiority of informal balance. And like many of the schools of thought that emerge throughout design history, this was like a declaration. These movements would come along like a revolution and the message was, forget everything you know, throw it all away - it's wrong, this is how it should be done. And the irony is that Mr. Tschichold later recanted the rigidity of his own writings, and made friends with traditional things like roman typefaces and formal balance.

Today, we seem to be largely over this polarization. We've learned from the schools of thoughts and we tens to regard them as different modes of expression to choose from. So, as far as balance is concerned, exercise your formal and informal sensibilities as suits the particular needs of your project.

But that'll do for today. I want to thank you for listening in, and I'll remind you that a transcript of today's show is available at the webpage, which is Music is by

But thanks again for joining us, and I hope to have you back next time.



Friday, May 16, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 26, Symmetrical or Formal Balance

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

In our last episode, we took up the principle of balance. And to lay the ground work for this discussion, we introduced the phrase, optical weight, which, in a nutshell, describes the phenomenon of how elements on a page have visual gravity. Depending on their size, and depending on their value, which refers to their lightness or darkness, an element can appear relatively light or heavy. And in the balancing beam that is our page, this influences our perceptual sense of balance.

Today, I'd like to introduce the idea, first, of Symmetrical Balance, also referred to as Formal Balance. And as the name implies, this kind of balance has an even symmetry, or mirror image distrubution of elements on the page with relation to the central axis. So, like the appearance of a butterfly, or a rorschak test folded perfectly in half, we often have a perfect parity, and close left hand / right hand shape equivalence. Now, this doesn't mean that we necessarily have identical objects on either side of that central axis, but we've got similarity in terms of numbers and sizes and value of objects, and they're more or less arranged in mirror-image fashion.

The simplest example of this is the center justfication of type. When we center-justify type on a page, we clearly see that mirror-image shape occurring. In other words, whether the measure of a line of type is long or short, their position will correspond to a central axis. So, if we squint at a page of justified type, we'll discern a grayish mass with identical contours on each side. Kind of like a rorschak shape. So, here we have an example of type brought into formal balance.

Now, the more thoughtful typographers employ formal balance with purpose in mind. They have a reason for doing so. But to understand that purpose, one has to appreciate some of the implications of formal balance.

If we take wedding invitations, for example, it seems that they're always center justified, which tends to befit these very formal, somewhat decorative documents. And because they are center-justified, or formally balanced, we get kind of a tranquil, sedate effect out of it. Formal balance just feels safe and stable to us. And the reason it does, the idea behind it, is that everything is equal, everything is in an equilibrium. And what that implies to us is a static state. There's no movement implied by stasis or equilibrium. Like a pyramid, its a stable form. And, yet, if you think about it, it's not always exciting to play it safe. Things that are static, in a state of equilibrium, with no implied motion, can become quite boring, actually. So, when it comes to layout decisions, we'll want to reserve symmetrical or Formal balance for material that's suited to this type of arrangement. Ofttimes, that will make sense for conservative kinds of things.

Formal balance is often where we start as beginners at design. Because it just feels safer for us to balance elements in this manner, we tend to use it more when we're starting out. We do what a friend of mine calls "the matchy matchy thing," out of insecurity, balancing elements on the right and left sides of the page, because, well, we're afraid to do otherwise. Our instincts haven't been trained to create more dynamic arrangements, because we're insecure about venturing away from our symmetry.

But more on that next time. We'll stop here for now, with the definition and implications of formal balance as we've just described, and venture into some other ideas about balance next time.

But I thank you again for listening. And I want to especially thank the good folks at Apple for featuring this program on their iTunes Store podcast home page last week. That was a wonderful surprise.

And if you're enjoying these shows, I'd ask you to leave a comment at the podcast home page at iTunes, which is the best way to get the word out.

But thanks again for tuning in, and I hope to have you back again.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 25, Balancing Act

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explore timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Well, we may not be able to bring balance to the force, but we can speak to the principles of balance that will help us in our design work. In life, as in many arenas, balance is something we're always striving for. In our compositions, designers have the unique advantage of seeing balance, and of actually visualizing its dynamics. And yet despite that advantage, designers still need help with balance, they need help with how to think about balance, and so this is a topic that's worthy of our time and attention.

But let's start with a basic definition. The standard dictionary entry describes balance as an even distribution of weight, allowing a person or thing to remain upright and stable. When something is stable, it tends not to fall over. When a person loses their balance, it's because their weight has shifted in a way that won't allow them to maintain their stance. And so we begin to fall over, and if we can't recover, we take a tumble. The greater the shift in weight, the less chance we have of regaining our balance. So, balance is something we're constantly trying to maintain, even on an unconscious level, as we stroll down the avenue on a carefree, sunny day.

And so it goes with our design compositions. The balance we maintain is often something we're not even consciously thinking of. We just make the adjustments to our layouts as we go, intuitively, without much thought or concern.

And yet balance merits a bit of study, especially when we're starting out, and are forming our habits of thought and approach to our work. So, what I'd like to do is discuss the different kinds of balance, and their implications on our work.

Now, with that definition of balance as an even distribution of weight, or weights, we've got a pretty good leg up on things. In fact, I've heard designers compare the weight and balance aspects of their compositions to a teeter totter kind of dynamic, recognizing that as they place elements on a page, each element has its own optical weight. And by the way, do make mental note of that phrase, "optical weight," because it's a good concept to have in mind as we approach other subjects of design. But in balancing the page, we know we've got a central axis, a conceptual line down the middle of the page. And as elements stack up in various places on the page, our sense of balance is affected. Our page will fee like it's see sawing to the right or left if the weight of those elements is distributed unevenly.

So, what contributes to optical weight? That is, what makes an element feel relatively light or heavy on the page? The main contributors are size or scale, and value. The bigger the object, the heavier. The darker the object, the heavier.

For example, picture a page in your mind with two black orbs, two filled-in circles of black. And these orbs are distributed evenly, horizontally on the either side of the central axis of your page. So, we've got a classic teeter totter set-up here. Well, if they're both the same size, and they're both black, how will that feel? Balanced or unbalanced? I think if we'd all say they're balanced.
Now, make one smaller than the other. And it feels unbalanced.
Now, make them equal in size again, but change one to light grey, which is a lower value or tint. Now the page feels unbalanced again. Same size orbs, but one is lighter in value, and it feels lighter in weight.
Finally, reduce the black orb to half the size of the light grey orb, or thereabouts. This tends to bring things back in balance. One side is smaller but denser looking, the other larger, but lighter looking, and so they appear to be essentially balanced.

Now, there's much more to balance to explore, but that'll have to do for today, so let's stop here, with this teeter totter concept and the idea of optical weight under our belts.

And let me remind you that a transcript of today's discussion is available on my webpage, at Music is by

Well, I thank you again for listening in, and I hope to have you back next time.