There are generally three types of balance: symmetrical (formal) balance, asymmetrical (informal) balance and overall balance. Symmetrical designs are static and evoke feelings of classicism, formality and constancy. Asymmetry requires a variety of element sizes and careful distribution of white space. Because they have more complex relationships, it takes sensitivity and skill to handle elements asymmetrically. Asymmetrical designs evoke feelings of modernism, forcefulness and vitality. Overall balance is usually the result of too much being forced on a page. It lacks hierarchy and meaningful contrast. It is easy for this type of organization to look "noisy" (White 2002, p. 65).

Symmetrical Balance

Symmetry: balanced proportions; correspondence in size, shape, and relative position of parts on opposite sides of a dividing line or median place or about a center or axis.

One way of creating balance is through the use of symmetry, or mirrorlike replication of parts around a visual axis. Symmetrical balance is also called formal balance because a form (formula) is used -- a mirror image about a vertical axis. The results look formal, organized and orderly.

Pure Symmetry

Pure symmetry means that the sides are exact mirror images of each other. This limits symmetry's application to abstract images since most objects in the real world are not truly symmetrical. Try folding a leaf down the center and notice that the opposite sides do not exactly correspond with one another. Designers rarely use pure symmetry for this reason. The following image of a cloth pattern is an example of pure balance.

Figure 1: Symmetrical balance pattern of a piece of cloth.

Near Symmetry

Near symmetry is based on symmetry but the two halves are not exactly the same. Slight variations will probably not change the balance but there is more potential for variety and hence more interest. When the sides become too different, symmetry ceases to exist and balance must depend on other concepts (asymmetry). Near symmetry is more versatile than pure symmetry. It is used in many graphic images since type throws off the symmetry but leaves a sense of balance intact. It is also occasionally used for formal fine art images, especially early Christian religious paintings. Here is a simple example of near symmetry balanced image. When designing to achieve symmetrical balance, avoid near-miss symmetry because minor deviations can appear as mistakes.

Figure 2: Example of balancel with near symmetry.

Inverted Symmetry

Inverted Symmetry uses symmetry with one half inverted like a playing card. This is an interesting variation on symmetry but can make for an awkward balance. Inverted symmetry can be seen as a rotation of an asymetrical figure about 180 degrees.

Figure 3: Inverted symmetry images on the playing card.

Biaxial Symmetry

A symmetrical composition can have more than one axis of symmetry. Biaxial symmetry uses two axes of symmetry -- vertical and horizontal. These guarantee a kind of rigid balance: top and bottom as well as left and right. The top and bottom can be the same as the left and right, or they can be different. The most regular and repetitive image occurs when they are the same.More than two axes are possible. Snow flakes and kaleidoscopes have three axes of symmetry.

Figure 4: Examples of snowflakes.

Radial Symmetry

Radial symmetry is a related concept and can use any number of axes since the image seems to radiate out from the center, like a star or this piece of artwork

Figure 5: Rejection Quintet: Rejection Drawing, 1974, By Judy Chicago.

Asymmetrical Balance

A more challenging problem for the designer is to achieve asymmetrical balance. There solutions are often more visually interesting, and also more common, First, because most problems do not suggest a symmetrical solution. And, second, because symmetry exists only when an object is viewed in isolation from its surroundings. Our visual world, in total, is never symmetrical (considering scale in context). It is also interesting to note that objects in the natural environment so often cited as displaying symmetrical balance are, in many cases, not perfectly symmetrical and are really examples of asymmetrical balance (such as a human being's face).

Asymmetry means without symmetry. It just means that there are no mirror images in a composition. The term, however, is usually used to describe a kind of balance that does not rely on symmetry: asymmetrical balance. There is no simple formula for achieving balance in asymmetrical balance (hence the term informal balance) so the designer must sense whether or not the composition is balanced. This is where your sense of balance really comes into play.

The composition either looks like it is in balance or it does not. Where does your attention goes when you look at an image? If it seems to wander around more or less evenly, there is probably balance. If you seem to always come back to the same area, and that is not the center of the composition, then the balance is suspect.

One way to achieve asymmetry balance that is almost a formula is to have more or less equally interesting things randomly distributed throughout the format. The effect is like confetti dropped on the area. There is balance because interest is evenly distributed, and there is unity. The problem is that everything is likely to seem too equal and hence too uniform. There is not enough variety and the design soon becomes boring.

It is possible to push the envelope of balance with asymmetry. A small visually interesting object can balance a much large less interesting object. You can sometimes use nothing to balance something. Negative space has visual interest if used properly. Exact amounts and correct placement are required. There are no rules or limits with asymmetrical balance. That does not mean that anything goes. Careful adjustments in size, shape, color and placement of the elements in the format are required before balance is achieved.

The attraction of asymmetrical balance to artists is its lack of a formula. These allow greater freedom that lends itself to more creative compositions. The difficulty lies in its lack of organization. This must be overcome by careful placement of objects and the use of other organizational devices, like figure/ground Gestalt principles (see LOD on Gestalt). It is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have achieved balance, when you simply have a mess. A good way to check your developing sense is to show your work to others and talk about what they perceive.

Figure 6: Asymmetrical balance pattern of a piece of cloth.(Royal Free Image)

Asymmetry suggests motion and activity. It is the creation of order and balance between unlike or unequal elements. Asymmetrical design doesn't guarantee a dynamic, lively design. But the structure is more flexible than that of symmetrical balance and allows greater freedom to connect with content. Like other freedoms, asymmetrical design offers great reward but requires discipline, understanding, and sensitivity from the artist. These improve with knowledge and experience. Read, study and immerse yourself in great design.