Thursday, May 8, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 25, Balancing Act

Download Episode 25

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.

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