Friday, May 16, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 26, Symmetrical or Formal Balance

Download Episode 26

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.

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