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Classic Graphic Design Theory Principles of Design: Balance

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Copyright © 1999 by Bonnie Skaalid

Classic Graphic Design Theory
Principles of Design: Balance

To understand balance, think of the balance beam. When objects are of equal weight, they are in balance. If you have several small items on one side, they can be balanced by a large object on the other side. Visual balance works in much the same way. It can be affected not only by the size of objects, but also their value (ie. lightness or darkness, termed visual weight). 

Symmetrical (Formal) Balance

Symmetrical balance is mirror image balance. If you draw a line down the center of the page, all the objects on one side of the screen are mirrored on the other side (they may not be identical objects, but they are similar in terms of numbers of objects, colors and other elements. Sometimes they are completely identical (often seen in architecture). 

Look at this drawing of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Angouleme, France. You can draw a line down the middle of the front face, and everything on either side would be mirror image.

Pic: formal balance-Cathedral


Asymmetrical (Informal) Balance 

Asymmetrical balance occurs when several smaller items on one side are balanced by a large item on the other side, or smaller items are placed further away from the center of the screen than larger items. One darker item may need to be balanced by several lighter items.

Although asymmetrical balance may appear more casual and less planned, it is usually harder to to use because the artist must plan the layout very carefully to ensure that it is still balanced. An unbalanced page or screen creates a feeling of tension, as if the page or screen might tip, or things might slide off the side, just as the unbalanced balance beam would tip to one side 

by color 

Our eyes are drawn by color. Small areas of vibrant color can be used to balance larger areas of more neutral colors. The vivid red skirt on the left is balanced by the larger neutral pink dress [1].

Pic:by color-Gauguin

by value 

Value refers to the darkness or lightness of objects. Black against white has a much stronger contrast than gray against white. To balance these two colors, you would need a larger area of gray to balance the stronger value of black. 

Pic:by value

by shape

Large flat areas without much detail can be balanced by smaller irregularly shaped objects since the eye is led towards the more intricate shape. 

The front dancer in this painting by Degas [2] stands out in intricate detail compared to the large blurry area behind her.

Pic:by shape-Degas

by position

Using a balance beam, a larger weight closer to the center point can be balanced by a lighter weight further away from the center. This is the basis for balance by position. Sometimes larger elements on one side of the page can be balanced by a smaller element that is positioned by itself at the far end of the other side of the page. This is a very tricky type of asymmetrical balance that often ends up looking out of balance. 

Pic: Degas- Dancers Practicing at the Bar

Look at how the small watering can on the left is used to balance the larger dancers to the right [3]. 

by texture 

Smaller areas with interesting textures (variegated light and dark, or random fluctuations) can balance larger areas with smoother, untextured looks. 

Pic: Balance by texture

by eye direction 

Your eye can be led to a certain point in a picture depending on how the elements are arranged. If the people in a picture are looking in a certain direction, your eye will be led there as well. Elements in a picture, such as triangles or arrows, will also lead your eye to look to a certain point and maintain the balance of a picture. Look how the eye direction of the dancers and musicians in this painting by Seurat [4] lead your eye to the small gaslights which provide a focal point in this painting.

Pic: Balance by eye direction-Seurat

Radial Balance 

RadialThe third type of balance is radial balance, where all elements radiate out from a center point in a circular fashion. It is very easy to maintain a focal point in radial balance, since all the elements lead your eye toward the center. 



[1] Gauguin, Paul. Two Women on a Beach. 1891. Oil on canvas, 27 x 35 1/2. Louvre, Paris.

[2] Degas, Edgar. L'etoile [La danseuse sur la scene] (The Star [Dancer on Stage]). 1878. Pastel on paper, 60 x 44 cm (23 5/8 x 17 3/8 in); Musee d'Orsay, Paris

[3] Degas, Edgar. Dancers Practicing at the Bar. 1877. Oil on Canvas. 29 3/4 x 32. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[4]Seurat, Georges. Le Chahut. 1889-90; Oil on Canvas, 66 1/8 x 55 1/2 in; Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo

Elements & Principles of Design: [Line] [Shape] [Texture] [Value & Color] [Space] [Movement] [Balance] [Emphasis] [Unity]

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