Saturday, May 24, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 27, Asymmetrical or Informal Balance

Download Episode 27

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.



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