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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Custom Printing: Asymmetrical Balance in Your Design

When I first started designing publications forty years ago, I had no formal training. I made a lot of errors. Or, worse, I produced a lot of mediocre work.

In part this was because I had started in publications as a word person. I wrote and edited, but did not yet think in terms of how to design a page for a print book, a brochure, or an advertisement in such a way as to grab the interest of the reader. I could, however, recognize good design.

Over time, I found a number of print books on publication design, and I collected an expansive “swipe file” of printed products (everything from business cards to printed shoe boxes to posters) that I considered excellent examples of their own particular category.

The Rules of Design

I am a great believer in practicing the “fundamentals,” just as a basketball player practices dribbling and does lay-up after lay-up daily, I study the rules of design and composition. So year after year I studied “the rules” of design, first of all becoming aware that the rules of graphic design were no different from the rules of fine art. (I had studied painting and drawing for years before moving into art production for commercial printing, so I had absorbed many of the design rules already.)

This is how I think my entry into the field of design for commercial printing might be relevant to you, if you design anything from print books to brochures to banners for hanging on the sides of buildings. In some cases you may have come into the field by accident (without formal training), and as you develop your own skills, you may be looking for pointers.

In this light, I found a book at the thrift store entitled Graphic Design Basics, which was written by Amy E. Arntson. Basics, fundamentals. This book fits the bill.

Principles of Balance

When I speak of “rules,” I want to be clear that I think design rules can be successfully broken. That said, if you break the rules, you have to do it for a good reason, so the first and most useful step is to learn the rules from the masters.

Graphic Design Basics contains everything you need to know (so you can absorb the information and then practice it for the remainder of your career). Because the print book is so comprehensive, I’m going to pick just one concept as a starting point for this blog article, one that I think is particularly effective for spicing up your design work: asymmetrical balance.

To define our terms, the opposite of “asymmetrical balance” is “symmetrical balance.” Your face is pretty much symmetrical. If you draw a line down the center, everything on the left side has a corresponding element on the right. One eye, the other eye, one nostril, the other nostril. Everything is visually in balance. You can tell this intuitively. It’s just right.

You can approach a conservative business card or a formal invitation in much the same way. You can imagine a central vertical line with everything centered, balanced on the left and right, going from the top to the bottom of the card.

Symmetrical balance provides a sense of formality, gravitas, security, to a design. You can do the same thing with photos and text. Just draw an imaginary vertical line down the center of the page, and make sure every element on the left has a corresponding element (of equal visual weight) on the right.

Unfortunately this can become very boring very quickly.

Asymmetrical Balance

Whereas symmetrical balance works through a rigid balance of equal visual elements, asymmetrical balance works through contrasts. Based on things like size, color, and placement on a page (toward the center or toward the edge of the page—perhaps using a single-page advertisement as an example), you can achieve a visceral (or gut) sense of balance that is far more dynamic than a stolid symmetrical balance. This sense of energy and movement can be a useful way to capture reader interest.

But how do you do this? What are the rules? Fortunately, Graphic Design Basics lists a number of them, which I will share with you. You will find the same rules of asymmetrical balance also apply to works of fine art. Therefore, I would encourage you to both visit museums and also study samples of commercial printing.

Here are the principles of asymmetrical balance as noted in Graphic Design Basics. As we discuss these, consider how you might balance weights on a seesaw (teeter-totter). For instance, you could put a large weight on one side, close to the central fulcrum, and then actually balance this heavy weight with a few smaller, lighter weights at the far end of the opposite side (far away from the central fulcrum). Consider this metaphor when you read these rules, and when you look at samples of commercial printing work, I believe you will develop an intuitive, gut reaction to what is or is not “in balance.”

The rules (from Graphic Design Basics):

  1. Location: A large shape in the middle of a page is already in balance. It feels anchored (probably based on our intuitive understanding of symmetrical balance (half of the shape on either side of the imaginary central vertical line of balance). You can balance a large central shape with a much smaller shape if the smaller shape is near the edge of the page (any edge). This is just like the seesaw metaphor noted above. To put this in the terms of graphic design, the central shape might be a large photo, and the small shape near the edge of the page might be a smaller photo. Or, the central shape might be a photo, and the smaller shapes near the outside edges might be call-outs (pull quotes) or even large initial caps beginning paragraphs of text. Squint as you’re designing, and you’ll see the artistic shapes instead of the typeset words.
  2. Isolation: If you position a small shape surrounded by a lot of white space (negative space) on the page, this graphic element will have more visual weight than a much larger group of small objects. The key word is “group.” For example, when you’re designing a page, you can balance a group of head shot photos with a single photo positioned away from this collection of photos.
  3. Texture: “A small, highly textured area will contrast with and balance a larger area of simple texture” (Graphic Design Basics, p. 72). For instance, if you’re designing an advertisement, you can balance a large block of body copy text about the product with a more complex but much smaller headline, perhaps set at the top of the page and extending into the margin, maybe even at an angle. The visually-perceived (as opposed to actual, or physical) texture of the headline, with its complex letterforms, will contrast with and balance the much larger “sea of grey” provided by the body copy of the advertisement.
  4. Value: High contrast adds to the visual weight of a shape in a design. For instance, a small black and white photo on a page (if it has a lot of contrast and rich black tones) will balance out a much larger light (high-key) photo or an area screen of a color. The contrast between the overall black (or other dark color) of the photo and anything else on the page will give the dark photo more visual weight than the lighter, larger shape (perhaps a block of text typeset all in one size).
  5. Shape: “Complicated contours also have a greater visual weight than simple ones” (Graphic Design Basics, p. 74). An example would be a starburst design (in an ad) out of which you might reverse the words “Free Trial.” The jagged edge of this much smaller shape would contrast with, and balance, a much larger photo on the opposite side of the imaginary central line of balance (again, always think in terms of this central line, whether you’re creating a symmetrical or asymmetrical balance in your page design).
  6. Color: Bright and intense color (used sparingly) will balance out much larger design elements in less bright, less saturated color. Think about the use of an intense red color in any ad you have ever seen. Usually a little red goes a long way. In fact, if you highlight even a few words in deep, intense red, the rest of the advertisement can be printed in black, and yet the reader’s eye will go directly to the much smaller shapes (letterforms) printed in red.

What You Should Remember

  1. All of this comes down to two things. If you want the reader to be comfortable, find ways to create balance in a page spread. However, you may want to make the reader uncomfortable in order to confront or challenge her/him. In this case, consider ways to subvert the rules described above.
  2. The main goal is to lead the reader’s eye through the printed page in a specific order you have chosen, based on the levels of importance of the content (or the relationships among the elements of content). Think about the lines of direction and movement you create (for instance, if a model in a photo is looking in a certain direction, your reader will do the same; therefore, it might be effective to place an important block of copy there).
  3. There are many, many more rules (textbooks full). This is only one brief topic. So collect design textbooks and steep yourself in them. Then forget the textbooks and rules, and look at printed design and fine art you like. You’ll see more, and the rules will become a part of you. Some you’ll follow; some you’ll discard.

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