Design composition: Symmetry and Balance

Symmetry and Balance are among the most important design composition principles. In this article I will explain some the basics of how balance and symmetry affect your composition. I will illustrate these concepts with real posters, advertising images and digital artworks. I hope this will give you a better understanding of how images are composed and help you make better compositions when you take pictures or create graphic content.

When creating your designs there a few key aspects you must keep in mind, a few rules that will help you create better compositions that communicate your message in a more effective way and also make your works more appealing. These rules are the design principles and among the basic ones we can find:

  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Rhythm
  • Hierarchy

Balance

Is a key design principle that dictates how elements of a design should be arranged (on a two dimensional space in the case of graphic design) so that all elements (positive and negative space) compensate each other.

Positive Space

Areas of focus of a design. The elements that make up your design, it can be text, graphics, textures…

Balance and symmetry in design
On this image you can see an example of positive (marked with yellow arrows) and negative space (marked with blue arrows)

Negative Space

Represents the background, the empty space around the elements that form your design. On the above image is marked with the blue arrows.

On the image bellow the concept of positive and negative space is used creatively: The use of negative space (black background) help create the shape of the fork at and at the same time represents the wine bottles. Negative and positive space represent both ideas: food (fork – positive space) and wine (wine bottles-negative space).

Note: The concepts of Positive and Negative space have nothing to do with color or black and white.

The image is a great example of positive and negative space usage. From the Food and Wine festival campaign (http://www.melbournefoodandwine.com.au/)

Now that we know what positive and negative space is, we can talk about balance. A balanced composition is pleasing to the eye while an unbalanced composition creates visual tension. Creating an unbalanced composition is not necessarily a bad thing, it all depends on what you want to communicate.

Always keep in mind that design is a type of communication and the rules of composition help you communicate your message in a more effective way. The rules of composition help you create your design in such a way that your message is interpreted by your audience the way you wanted and more efficiently that randomly placing your elements.

Let’s see the different types of balance we can use in design.

Visual or physical balance

There are multiple ways of achieving balance on your designs: balance by color, by contrast, by proximity, etc. Visual balance is achieved depending where you place your elements with respect of the center of your composition and their weight. Two elements of the same size can have different weights.

Example of different elements with different weights. Click on the image to see on full size

Keep in mind that the true center of your composition is not the same as the optical center. The optical center of a composition is a little higher than the geometric center. Is where the eye finds balance naturally if there are no elements to lead the eye to another focal point on the image.

Design composition principles. Optical and geometrical center
Blue dot – The optical center. Yellow dot – The geometrical center

Placing elements at the same distance from the center will help you create balance on your design composition. On the image below, both silhouettes at the same distance from the center of the frame.

Visual balance in graphic design

If different elements are placed away from the center, these can be counter weighed by elements on the oposite side or with different size. On the example below, the red square on the top left, even though is smaller, has the same weight as the black area on the bottom of the composition.

On this image by Kazimir Malevich the red rectangle counter weights the big dark area on the bottom. In this case we are talking about asymmetrical balance.

Think of each element as a weight on a scale or a seesaw where the pivot point is the center of your composition and the beam is your canvas.

The color and position of the red rectangle gives it the same weight as the big black area on the bottom. The bottom shape has no color which give it less weight but it compensates the lack of color by it’s size and distance from the center of the composition
The same design represented on a 3D illustration. Arrows indicate the weight of each element. The center line indicates the center of the composition.

If you have different elements with different weights, these should be placed at different distances with respect of the center of the composition if you want to achieve balance

In most cases placing all elements at the same distance is either boring or simply not suitable for a design. Also we have more variables such as size, contrast and color which can help us balance our design.

Asymmetrical balance

You achieve asymmetrical balance when elements of the design are placed in such a way that their weight is visually unequal on the composition. In other words, one part of the composition could have a big dominant element which is compensated by many smaller elements on the opposite side like in the image below.

Bauhaus poster with asymmetrical balance. The top part is compensated by multiple smaller elements on the bottom part.

If you place elements closer to the bottom of the composition you get a stronger balance and a sense of stability on the image. They add weight to the image and “drag” the composition downwards.

On the next image you can see another example of asymmetrical balance. The red square is counter weighted by the text lines and blue rectangles on the bottom.

This image from an Oreo advertising campaign is a great example of asymmetrical balance. The balance is achieved between the small but high contrast cookie and the big white glass of milk.

Symmetrical balance

All elements of the design have the same visual weight and they are placed at the same distance from the center of the composition. Take a look at the examples below.

Symmetrical balance composition from a NatGeoWild campaign. Both animals form a symmetrical balance from the center of the image.
This image from a Coca Cola campaign features symmetrical balance between the fork and knife which have the same visual weight. They are placed at the same distance from the composition center on either side. Also note the use of negative and positive space.

Radial balance

This is almost self explanatory. The elements are balanced around a common point.

Radial balance is mostly symmetrical. In this image the different arms emerge from the center of the composition. Note how the the center of the composition is a little higher than the geometrical center of the image.
Often times, radial balance of the elements help framing other elements. In this image the silhouette of the Chupa Chups is created using the negative space.

Symmetry

Symetry is ussualy a synonim of balance. One could say that they are related terms because symmetry implies the concept of balance. Using symmetrical elements on your composition creates a pleasing and harmonic effect. There are different kinds of symmetry but the first one that comes to our minds is mirrored symmetry.

Design composition theory. Design symmetry
Example of an object with mirrored symmetry created in Photoshop

Design Composition and Balance in photo manipulation

These are the basics of balance and symmetry, next I will show you something more related to our artistic field which is photo manipulation.

Drag me to hell

In this manipulation I used symmetry to create the arms coming from around the tree. This is a good example of a balanced manipulation. It looks stable from a compositional point of view.

We have a main subject and an artificial framing around her (the arms) that add tension to the image. The pose, expression and the chains contributes to the same idea: trapped, tied up, agony, possession.

It’s a symmetrically balanced image: the subject is standing right in the middle, the tree creates a vertical line that adds more “stopping” power. As you can see I compensated the lighter part of the background with the dark area on the bottom half of the image.

There is plenty of space around the subject (negative space) which make the subject stand out. In terms of color, everything has the same desaturated green hue and the white shirt of the model attracts viewer’s attention from the first moment.

At the bottom of the composition the plants create depth of field but they are not standing out because they are very dark. I just wanted to get more depth of field without the plants grabbing attention

The center point of the manipulation is the red cross on the shirt.  This point stands a little higher than the geometrical center. Overall the image is read vertically and all elements contribute to that. Click here if you want to see how I created this manipulation.

Click on the image to see on full size

Conclusion

Improving your design composition depend on many factors. Using the principles of design you will get a better understanding of how to create your graphic works. You’ll have more tools at your disposal to communicate your message in a more effective way.

Symmetry and balance are a great ton when creating visually appealing design compositions. Whenever you add a new element on your composition you should always think about: why are you placing it in a certain location.

Design composition: Symmetry and Balance
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I'm a self-taught Photoshop artist and like teaching other how to improve their skills. I love design and graphic communication. I've been creating Photoshop tutorials since 2009 for beginners and advanced users

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