Printing and Design Tips: August 2015, Issue #169

Achieving Balance in Graphic Design

I found a fine arts and design book called Design Basics (by David Lauer and Stephen Pentak) in a thrift store a while back. What it teaches about art bridges the gap between fine art (such as drawing and painting) and commercial art (graphic design, illustration, choices of typography, etc.). Since I have been both a graphic designer/art director and an art teacher (working with my fiancee, an art therapist), I see immense value in acknowledging this connection. Not enough people see the similarities.

Upon paging through Design Basics in no particular order, I read several sections on balance in art. I think some of the rules of thumb noted in the book will be of particular use to graphic designers.

Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical Balance

First of all, a symmetrical balance within a painting, a book page spread, or a flyer is created by arranging all design elements in equilibrium on either side of an imaginary vertical line drawn from the top to the bottom of a page. A sense of balance puts the reader or viewer at ease; a lack of balance makes the viewer or reader uneasy (which may or may not be a bad thing based on the artist's or designer's goals).

A good example of such a design can be found in an invitation to a formal party (say a wedding). All lines of type are centered, each below the other, as you read down a page. The type sizes may vary, but there is a sense that everything is the same on the left and right, from top to bottom.

You will see the same kind of symmetrical balance within many classical religious paintings if you go to an art museum.

Whether used in an invitation, a letterhead, or a painting of the Madonna and Child, a symmetrical balance is traditional, formal, perhaps even regal. It gives a serious tone to an art piece.

In contrast, asymmetrical balance is more intuitive, more fluid, perhaps playful, not at all rigid. However, being intuitive in nature, it is harder to achieve. Developing the sensibility to know whether an asymmetrical balance has been achieved or not starts with a few rules. Design Basics covers a number of these.

Interestingly enough, this particular chapter of Design Basics opens with a cartoon of a long, narrow painting being carried by three people. On the left, one person carries half the painting, which comprises a single circle in a large white space. On the right, two people carry the other side of the painting, which includes a jumble of circles, lines, rectangles, and triangles, overlapping each other in complete disarray. Presumably, the chaos on the right side of the painting “weighs” more than the single circle in the large field of white on the opposite side of the painting.

As an example of asymmetrical balance, if you were born in the late '50s you may remember the Volkswagen print ad with the “VW Beetle” alone in a large field of white. The concept was “Think Small.” Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig created this campaign in 1959 as representatives of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. Fifty-six years later, it is still masterful.

In one ad from this series, the VW is slightly left of center in the top half of the large ad. The photo is huge, but the car takes up only a small potion of the empty white background. Below the photo is the “Think Small” tagline above three short columns of text plus the VW logo.

In the particular version of the ad I'm describing, the headline and columns of type are symmetrically balanced; however, the car, being slightly off center, is not. This works (i.e., there is a sense of balance) because the car is apparently moving toward the imaginary vertical center axis of the ad. The ad is asymmetrically balanced.

Some Rules of Thumb

Here are some rules concerning visual balance taken from Design Basics. Rules are important to understand and apply; however, equally important, there are times when you have to break them:

1. “A darker, smaller element is visually equal to a lighter, larger one.” (Page 86, Design Basics). In the VW ad, the small VW Beetle completely balances the tag line and three columns of type at the bottom of the ad. This is because the car is so dark and visually “heavy.” In fact, this sense of balance is similar to that of the cartoon that opens the book's chapter on balance. In the painting being carried by three people, the single circle in the field of white is comparable to the small car in a large white background.

2. “A small, complicated shape is balanced by a larger, more stable shape.” (Page 88, Design Basics). An example of this rule might be a large, square-edged photo printed in the center of the left page of a magazine spread. You might include a smaller silhouetted image on the right-hand page (perhaps off center) and then fill in the remaining space with three columns (per page) of text. When you look at the double-page spread (complete with photos), you will see that the smaller, more irregular (or complex) silhouette on the right balances the larger rectangular photo on the left. If it doesn't, you'll know it. Lack of visual balance (even asymmetrical) feels “wrong.” Then you can adjust the positioning until the smaller silhouette balances the larger photo on the opposite page.

3. “A small, textured shape can balance a larger textured one.” (Page 89, Design Basics). You might find this rule useful if you add a foil stamped image to a book cover treatment. Perhaps you will choose to imprint the foil stamp (or for that matter an embossed image will do) over a large, rectangular photo on the cover. You will find that the texture of either option (foil or embossing) even in a small format will appear to balance the much larger, flat photograph.

4. “A large shape placed near the middle of a design can be balanced by a smaller shape placed toward the outer edge.” (Page 90, Design Basics). The image attached to this rule of thumb in Design Basics shows two drawings of two seesaws.

The fulcrum is in the center in both cases, and each seesaw board holds both a large and small circle (in solid black). In the first drawing, both circles have been placed toward the outer edge of the board on the seesaw, and the large circle has forced the seesaw down on its side of the fulcrum.

In contrast, in the second drawing the large circle is close to the central fulcrum, while the small circle is near the outer edge of the seesaw. In this drawing the two circles are in balance.

You can demonstrate this physical and aesthetic balance using a large photo and a much smaller element (say a logo). If you move the large photo toward the center of a page (or page spread) and the much smaller logo toward the outer side of the page, you will come to a point of balance. (You'll know it intuitively. The fulcrum of the seesaw drawing is the imaginary central vertical axis running down the center of the page or page spread.)

Design Basics has used an Edgar Degas painting to illustrate this concept. Two dancers (bodies, heads, and dresses) take up the upper left two-thirds of the canvas. This creates imbalance. However, the dancer on the right is bending over to grasp her right ankle on the ballet barre. Her arm and leg take up much less space than the two dancers' bodies, but her hand, arm, and foot are positioned toward the outer right edge of the painting. In contrast, the (visually) heavy bodies and dresses are positioned toward the central, vertical axis, so the composition of the painting is in (asymmetrical) balance.

Start with these rules, and learn to feel the balance intuitively. But also study both the classical paintings and art history of the masters, and the equally masterful graphic design of such commercial artists as Herb Lubalin and Milton Glaser.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]