A Theory on Balance in Design

Art Theory, Aesthetics, Design Gradient

In designing places for human use or art meant for orienting the human psyche, size and emphasis have an inverse relation. This is one critical element of balance.

Well-designed visual elements have a psychologically orienting effect on the viewer, which is something we’re usually only aware of when disoriented by a poor design.

If we pay careful attention, we begin to notice there are certain patterns unifying the scenic gardens where we long to escape to, the paintings that we dream of entering, and the house that somehow felt more like home than our own.

One pattern expressed in almost every aesthetically pleasing context is that of a gradient of relative weight or emphasis amongst visual elements in a design scenario. This is a brief introduction to a theory and formula aimed at expressing the qualities of this gradient to the best of my current ability. 

Here’s the basic idea: The larger the space/object being modified within a design scenario, the less weight/emphasis* should be assigned to it.  The contrary is true.  The smaller the space/object, the greater weight/emphasis should be assigned to it.

The relation between variables is one of infinite exponential regression. So one can reference the formula regardless of the size of the component being designed.

Formula: Both X and Y values lie at intervals following Golden Ratio of 1:1.618, so x, 1.618x, 1.6182x, 1.6183x, …

Here’s how I envision it’s application: When size ratios among spaces/objects (or visually distinct parts of objects) in a given design scenario do not or cannot align perfectly with the golden ratio, one can still follow the plot line for an approximation of the balanced degree of weight/emphasis to assign to it.

When establishing relative scale for size (X axis), begin with your medium itself as the largest value.  This provides the maximum X plotting point.  This is consistent with the conventional design methodology of executing visual hierarchy using tiers of increasingly complex detail; of starting with the basic, over-arching elements and drilling down the detail more gradually.

Weight/Emphasis is challenging to quantify; the most important metric is internal comparison/contrast to other objects/spaces in the design. Establishing relative scale for weight/emphasis (Y axis) could start with either the smallest accent elements or with the largest (lying most in the background); it is probably more common and less problematic to decide on the larger background elements first and work towards the smaller/accented elements.

Due to the nature of the gradient, it is far easier to inadvertently underemphasize accent elements and overemphasize background elements.  Conversely, it’s difficult to overstate the accents and to understate the background.

Here’s my first attempt to provide supporting rationale for the idea: Large objects gain emphasis simply by their size. This bias must be offset by decreasing other attributes that create emphasis/visual weight.  Also, if the majority of the medium itself is dedicated to emphasis, the viewer lacks visual direction or focus.

The effect of noise, while occasionally surprising, lacks the grace and restraint to attract continued interest over time and deepened respect for the thought and intention put into the work. Noise feels lazy and perhaps arrogant.

The same can be said of overcompensating for a bad design by excessively enlarging the design to draw the attention of the viewer to the impressive scale. This is a generalization, of course.  Some simpler designs, with the modest beauty of restraint, can be optimally executed at a large scale. But again, this goes back to the point of offsetting the impact of size by reducing other attributes that create visual weight.

Aesthetically, viewers generally benefit from visual hierarchy.  Whatever the medium, hierarchy usually benefits a work, when done with care and not with random or thoughtless rigidity. Smaller objects (x) are easier for the human eye to apprehend at one single moment.  We can instantly fixate on the beautiful eye in a painting, but must gradually scan the landscape in the background.

By accenting smaller elements in a design, we can see where the gems or special diamonds are in a piece.  One qualifying point must be made about accented elements.  While occasionally described as being the focal point of a design, this does not entail that the accents are the most important or demand the most time and attention.  It’s simply that our eyes move fluidly and naturally return to these prominent elements.

Medium sized objects (1.618x) help “present” or “stage” the smaller elements in the design. A tree next to a farmer, a table upholding a candlestick, clouds enshrouding the sun.  These are crude examples that quickly come to mind when thinking of “medium” elements that stage or present the central accent elements of a piece.

Large objects (1.6182x) provide the base, the background and the sense of primary context. The term “background” is used figuratively; large objects do not necessarily have a location behind other elements. The term “background” is chosen because it is, in a sense, oriented around and attends to the other elements in the design.  The term “base” is used for chemical reference.  As a base, the larger objects don’t necessarily create the “reaction” that catches our attention; however, without the proper base, the chemical reaction is often not attainable or at least is suboptimal.

Lastly, a few thoughts on the inter-relationship among the large background elements, medium supporting elements and smaller accent elements. This is the most difficult aspect to discuss with any intelligibility.

One can talk about how the dark velvet drapes in the background provide a beautifully solemn contrast to the bright red waxen apple on the table in the foreground, and how the ornamented pedestal table with its rich dark brown finely polished oak and solid construction provides an excellent “medium element” to present the red apple to the viewer.

These comments, however general, make sense to us intuitively.  But it is nearly impossible to map out the possible abstract and even epistemologically pre-linguistic connections the human mind can perceive in a work of art.  It is even more difficult to imagine what these connections mean, both subjectively and objectively.

The next step, the most obviously lacking step, is that of providing several varied examples of this theory in execution across multiple mediums throughout history… The theory is perhaps too rigid, but that is the fun of experimenting with theory.  It helps us get a better eye for subtlety in the complex world around us. To be continued…

* Weight/Emphasis is taken to be the combined effect of all variables in design that serve to distinguish an element from its surroundings. Color (hue, saturation), size, shape, contrast, stylistic elements, texture, dimension, light, movement, patterns, orientation, alignment, positioning etc. etc.