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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 12 – balance



In most cases balance in design is an expression of unity. Balance, a comfortable distribution of visual components, is an attempt to imitate the natural balance of which we are part.

We are physically capable of balance and that enables us to walk erect. We search for equilibrium.  We are a balanced mass.  Our mind looks for balance in a composition. It searches for a match with what it is used to seeing in everyday experience. If the mind doesn’t find an approximate match in its memory, it can have a disturbing experience.

The balance in a work of art is, as we should expect by now, a balance of the visual elements.


The balance of these elements can usually be placed in two large categories: symmetrical or formal balance and asymmetrical or informal balance. Each of these main categories has subdivisions.

Symmetrical or formal balance is a composition in which a line can be drawn down the middle and the two sides will be the same. If the two sides are mirror images of one another the balance can be called bilateral. If the two sides are very similar but have some differences in size or placement, the balance can be called near symmetry. Bilateral symmetry is often associated with architecture. Greek temples, Gothic churches, and many government buildings are symmetrical in design. The bilateral qualities of these structures evoke a sense of stability and predictability that the designers and their clients want to reflect on the institutions that the structures house.

Symmetry has long been associated with religious art on many levels. Religious architecture, sculpture, painting, mosaics, and stained glass all are commonly symmetrical in balance. This tendency transcends cultures as well – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, all use formal balance in some aspects of their artistic expression. The stability, permanence, seriousness, and comfort that symmetry can suggest fits very well with what religion wants to communicate to its followers.

Radial balance occurs when all elements radiate or circle out from the center of the composition. It can be considered a form of symmetrical balance as if divided in half, the two sides are the same. Radial balance has the quality of creating a central focal point and drawing the viewer to the center. This type of structure is commonly found in nature – flowers, shell structures, snowflakes, and crystal formations are all radial. It is also found in architecture, being the basis of the dome; and in engineering as well with wheels being classical radial balance.

One more variation on symmetrical balance is called crystallographic balance, which is an elaborate way of saying all-over pattern. In this type of balance the distribution of the elements is in a consistent repetition, creating a pattern. Usually there is no focal point, only a continued flow across the surface. This is a common balance for fabric design and wallpaper patterns, which do not want areas of emphasis (Lauer 77).

Asymmetrical or informal balance is an off-center balance of the elements in a composition. The major elements may be balanced in any irregular placement the artist wishes to achieve the desired results. Many times this is still a very structured and careful balance even though the shapes are different on both sides of the composition, the visual weight is still relatively equally distributed throughout. But this does not have to be the case. Asymmetrical balance can be quite startling and appear to some viewers as off-balance. This kind of balance can be called radical asymmetry. Classic examples of this use of shape and space can be found in some Chinese and Japanese sumi-e (black ink) painting. There is a tradition in Oriental painting of respect for and ample use of the void. Empty space is very important to the artist, in some cases more important than the space that is filled. A large piece of paper may have only a few bamboo branches protruding from one side and a small calligraphic poem over it. The rest of the paper is left open and this open space is the most important part of the painting – the importance of the void, the quiet, contemplation, the importance of what is not said or shown. This respect for negative space and use of radical asymmetry had an influence on some artists of the 20th century. The fine work of American realist Andrew Wyeth shows many examples of this influence along with its natural companion – implied space. A very different use of the same concepts can be seen in the work of Spanish abstract surrealist Joan Miro. His use of radical asymmetry created wonderful compositions of perplexing shapes and dancing lines, many times in voids of intense color.

Asymmetrical or informal balance is the balance most often found in nature. In a scenic view the visual elements are most often in asymmetrical placements with off-center but equally distributed visual arrangements. The term “informal” itself suggests a more natural, relaxed balance.


Values, colors, and textures are often closely tied to the shape and space of a composition, and they often work with the balance created by shape. But value, color, and texture can be powerful balancing elements either by themselves or tied to other elements. They can dramatically or subtly affect the overall visual weight in the composition.

The balance of value is the balance between light and dark. Normally dark values have more visual weight than light values. A large area of light gray can be balanced by a small area of black.

The balance of color can also be primarily a balancing of light and dark with the dark values carrying more weight. In the area of color-intensity balancing, brighter colors usually have more visual weight than dull colors. A very common balance is of color temperature. Warm and cool colors are often used in compositions as balancing factors. Warm colors usually carry more visual weight than cool colors. This is seen in compositions where small areas of intense red, orange, or yellow balance large areas of lower intensity blues or greens.

The balance of texture pits smooth against rough, and as might be expected, rough has more visual weight than smooth. Men’s facial hair fashions are a case in point. A mustache creates a rough linear contrast to the smooth facial skin. Different sizes and shapes of mustaches can take on such visual weight that they come to dominate the entire face, even though the facial skin has considerably more surface area.

The design of gardens for European and Chinese aristocrats provides an interesting contrast in balance and cultural preferences. European formal gardens are highly symmetrical, usually bilateral. The bushes and trees of the balanced organizations are trimmed and molded to create geometric masses that are painstakingly cared for and shaped to make them fit into very unnatural configurations. The Chinese gardens are the opposite. Asymmetry is the overriding principle. Boulders, smaller rocks, pebbles, bushes, moss, flowers and trees are carefully put into asymmetrical balanced compositions that try to create a idealized imitation of natural arrangements with the random quality found in a pristine corner of nature. Plants are not manipulated to fit unnatural forms but are allowed to express their innate qualities, including dead leaves or branches. Rocks and boulders are composed to emulate mountain ranges or islands in the sea on a miniature scale.

This polar approach to garden design reflects a very different preference in balance and also a very different attitude toward nature. The Western formal garden’s tendency to bend, straighten, and manipulate nature is an expression of the attitude that nature is material waiting for our use or abuse. The Eastern reverence for nature as reflected in their gardens shows a respect and the long-held belief that humans are simply one facet of nature.


Balance of power, balance of trade, balance of payments, balance of ingredients, balance of benefits – we are constantly striving for balance. Many systems of ethics, morals, philosophy, and religion strive to establish a balance in our behavior. Confucianism is one such system that relies heavily on the principle of balance. Confucius was a Chinese teacher who lived in approximately the 5th century BC. Myth and ritual grew up around the teacher in later centuries, but his basic teachings formed the educational core required of every educated Chinese for thousands of years. At the center of Confucian teaching is the concept of the “Middle Path.” Moderation in both conduct and opinion is considered the hallmark of the truly educated person; extremes are always to be avoided. Good lies between two extremes – “To exceed is as bad as to not reach,” said Confucius.

Emotionally balanced or mentally unbalanced are ways of describing mental health. These expressions have always been fitting ways to describe outward demeanor, but now contemporary medicine has shown that the balance description is also an accurate physical description. Some mental illnesses are caused or partially caused  by chemical imbalances in the brain. These imbalances can sometimes be mediated by medication that may help to stimulate a better balance. The growing understanding of the chemistry and balances in the brain is one way that science shows the unity of the head and the body. The health of the two cannot be separated, as they are linked – it seems rather obvious. Wholistic medicine is the study of the balance and unity of the many systems of the body and its relationship to its surroundings.

The balance of the systems of nature has become an area of intense study and concern in recent decades. It has been recognized that human activity has reached the point where it is causing some major imbalances in natural systems that have always been assumed unalterable.  The industrialized nations’ massive energy consumption and the resulting emissions into the atmosphere have combined with the elimination of the tropical rain forests to cause atmospheric imbalances. These changes threaten the planet with global temperature changes that could cause catastrophic results worldwide. Combine this with toxic and nuclear waste problems, the depletion of topsoil, and the dwindling water tables, and you have some real balance problems. Many people around the world are becoming aware that each one of us is a part of the natural system and is dependent on it – we must work with the balance, not against it.  One of the most interesting theories about the balanced relationship of the world’s systems, elaborated by James Lovelock, is called the Gaia theory. Lovelock believes that the earth itself is a living entity, and all its systems are parts that form a whole, just as the systems of our bodies form each of us as a single living entity. This tantalizing theory has scientific merit and is being seriously considered by scientists and philosophers alike. An unnerving aspect of the theory is that the living entity of the earth really doesn’t need human beings. If we imbalance our environment so badly that it is no longer habitable for us, the earth will adapt and evolve systems without us!

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