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.


Mona Lisa Doesn’t Need to Shout

Mona Lisa doesn’t need to shout.  With confident, restrained grace, her smile draws us in with more power than a shout. It is as if her smile knows its place within the masterpiece.

Designing a masterpiece and designing a marketing strategy share this in common: both require an artful balance of relative context through selective, focused and deliberate strokes.

In design, crowding your medium with noisy elements is not a promising way to achieve a memorable, lasting masterpiece. From Mona Lisa’s smile, we learn that brands can be more effective by finding their unique but coherent place within a canvas of competitors.

Your competitive position should reflect not just an internal awareness of your brand, but an acute external awareness of your competitive context: how are you perceived and what makes you stand out amongst competitors?

And that’s exactly how memorable art comes to be: the artist places the appropriate weight, focus and distinctive value upon the central figures in a piece by building upon the background and supporting elements in a coordinated and delicate matter.

Which smile most resembles your brand?

Marketing Strategy Visual

Overcoming Barriers to Inspiration

For most designers, the question of inspiration is usually surrounded by a good deal of obscurity. Though considered an essential ingredient for creativity, few are able to articulate it or know how to achieve it.

I don’t want to attempt a definition of inspiration, but I do want to get down on paper just a few of the necessary conditions required for inspiration. I say necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions, because I don’t believe most of us really know the magic behind what actually bring about inspiration. But I do think we can get nearer to an idea of the necessary conditions – the sine qua non (without which it could not be) – required to even make inspiration possible.

Many forces in our culture adversely affect creativity. Not only are creators (in any art or science) surrounded by external barriers to their creativity, but they face many internal, psychological barriers.

I’d like to touch on some of these barriers and suggest a few ways to “protect” our creative juices and create space for inspiration in our work. Because I am a designer, I will articulate my suggestions for designers. But the principles can still have broader application outside of the realm of a design team.

The main barriers to inspiration and a few ways to overcome them:

  1. Time: Whether the product of mere perception or actual deadlines, we tend to live under the tyranny of the urgent. When urgency dominates our conscious mind, there is little room for the muse of inspiration to bring our minds up to timeless things like goodness, truth and beauty.When consumed by the urgent, our minds fixate on actualities rather than possibilities. The tyranny of the urgent triggers a mental “fight or flight” mechanism that aims at one thing: survival. Not flourishing, not beauty, not greatness.Transcending Time

    – Well, we have obvious limitations. But often our perception of time needs to change. A few things my manager has done involve mandatory times of reflection and casual conversation at the beginning of team meetings. It is still gradually taking root across the whole company, but it is really having a positive and paradoxical affect: efficiency and creativity actually go up. I have a few theories about why this happens, but will save it for a later entry. If you can’t experiment with this, try taking walks outside to clear your mind for 15 min every few hours. Soak in the sun, breathe deeply, think about your family and friends, read some poetry, recite some formal prayers, do whatever helps you mentally “reset”.

    – I have tried to make a habit beginning to sketch and concept weeks or even months before a project is even in discussion. Meet with various stakeholders periodically to encourage them to forecast their needs so you can plan miles ahead of them.

    – Schedule a portion of your day or week to catch up on emails or other tasks that tend to demand immediate response but don’t actually require your immediate attention. Flag emails in Outlook, keep a list of lower priority tasks and put these aside before they side-track you. For me, a combination of Basecamp project management software and Post-It notes has worked nicely.

    – If your position allows it, try to set reasonable deadlines for yourself that give more time than you think you’ll need and either deliver early or deliver on time with a final product that goes above and beyond the original project description. (Just be aware of the precendent and expectation you set by consistently doing this :-))

    – For those of us who are employed designers, there will always be the brutal reality that businesses operate on efficiency. One thing I have done is made time for myself on weekends or after work to sketch, concept and do mock-ups just for the hell of it. I create imaginary brands and place them in various made-up communication scenarios. If you don’t discipline yourself to spend some of your own time on design, I don’t think you’ll sustain creativity at work (unless your workplace is exceptional).

  2. False Dichotomies: We tend to pigeon hole ourselves by thinking our work must either be creative or strategic (towards business objectives), either visually appealing or functional, either quality or efficient.Defeating the Dichotomy

    – Try to catch yourself in specific situations criticizes yourself or others using either/or reasoning. Instead of contradicting your peer (or yourself) identify the value in your position and theirs. Fess up, apologize (if need be), laugh about it, then approach the (I think) fun challenge of finding creative ways to make both seemingly opposed ideas work together.

    – Audit your past work and try to identify instances where you compromised and gave into either/or thinking. Point out specifics where you could have challenged yourself to embrace other seemingly opposed ideas and made your work great. Invite others you trust to help you identify these instances.

    – Meet with stakeholders and list out all the various needs (IT, marketing, VPs, CEO, CFO, etc.). It’s is a practical way to consistently challenge yourself to embrace seemingly opposed values and goals. When you succeed, you reap the added benefit of building trust with those stakeholders, which improves relationships in a post that can be very relationally difficult.

  3. Auto-pilot: We stagnate when we use the skills and processes that have become second nature as a substitute for creativity instead of as a tool in the toolbox to supplement and empower creative process. This can be closely linked to the tyranny of the urgent mentioned above.Taking Back the Stick

    – When I have made the unfortunate mistake of making my primary goal efficiency, I often slip into auto-pilot. While I do highly value efficiency, I still have to find the delicate balance between quality and efficiency. Ideally, I am constantly improving in both. For every project, I don’t just set deadlines and quantitative goals with stakeholders, I set qualitative goals for the aesthetic and artistic quality of the deliverables. This builds qualitative value into the project process and helps (many) stakeholders feel valued as much as your commitment to efficiency and ability to meet quantitative goals.

    – Sometimes, we become bored with projects that seem largely repetitive and limiting. Budget, time, brand identity, stakeholders, etc. can make you slip into robot-mode because your heart just isn’t in it anymore. I highly recommend creating imaginary sub-brands or sister brands (on your own time) to help you see your actual brand in a new light.

  4. Monologue: No one ever sustained creativity on their own for very long. Our work tends to come to life when we invite others into the creative and critical process.Stop Talking to Yourself

    – Dialogue with others challenges us to listen to and try on differing perspectives. Dialogue helps us deconstruct our small, subjective notions, and disposes us to listen for the ever-elusive but undeniable muse that shows up in the midst of true dialogue. In short, monologue encourages us to becomes pridefully self-satisfied with our “own” ideas, while dialogue humbles us by challenging us to listen,. Listening is one of the essential virtues of any artist. NOTE: To protect a dialogue from turning into an argument, it can be helpful to set rules (get creative with them). For example, you can require that every team member begin their responses with “Yes, and” (rather than “yeahhhh, but…”). There is a difference between dialogue and discussion, between discovery and critical analysis. They each have their place, but put them in their proper order and try not to mix them.

    – Immerse yourself in blogs, newsletters, Twitter feeds, Facebook and LinkedIn groups, sign up for webinars, download whitepapers, subscribe to magazines and other marketing publications, attend conferences, lectures and workshops, and make friends with like-minded designers.

  5. Failure to separate the creative and editorial process: When we hastily jump into scrutinize or polishing up our work when we have only just begin to sketch crude concepts, we don’t give the space our minds need to experiment with how to bring a vision to reality. Imagine a teacher giving an art student a paint brush to paint with. But the teacher gave no room to be silly and absurd, to experiment, to struggle, to be stuck, or to fail. The student would probably give up art altogether, or perhaps study up on the rigid “rules” of art and learn to mimic them well (though the result would be uninspired work).We tend to subject ourselves to the same hasty mentorship. Sometimes the cause is fear and self-doubt, sometimes it is angst over meeting a deadline. Introspection is always good for anyone experiencing the dreaded writer’s block, which affects us all from time to time.Sometimes Compartmentalizing is Good

    – For yourself, create and envision before editing and censoring your ideas. It’s as simple as that. You may have to go back and forth multiple times, but keep the two stages separate.

    – Implementing clear and distinct creative and editorial processes for your design team may present more complicated challenges. Stakeholders and company culture may resist such attempts and perceive them as being unflexible.

    – Invite stakeholders into the creative process at distinct phases of the project process and editorial process.

    – Set specific points for which you desire stakeholders’ input and emphasize the value these points have for you providing them with high-quality deliverables. From my limited experience, this helps bring mutual trust and understanding when attempting to implement formal changes to the project process.

My list and suggestions are by no means comprehensive. They are just a start. I have not mentioned some barriers simply because they are rather obvious. For example, sometimes lack of skills, resources and proper environment can inhibit creative inspiration.

My hope is that this list helps identify some ways to overcome internal and external challenges to creativity encourage anyone in any kind of work to thaw their cynicism about enjoying work and to discover renewed inspiration in their day-to-day work.

Excellence Requires Imagination

Imagination has little place in many workplaces here in the US.  In fact, you don’t see much imagination around you in day to day life.  You do see lots of concrete, copy+pasted tract homes, and “parks” that consist of large lawns, a few trees and maybe a swing.  Do we really have to live so uninspired?  More specifically to this post, do we have to work with so little inspiration?

I don’t think so.

More than that, I believe that a company will eventually fail if it does not deeply value employees, get the right people on board and implement norms and structures within the company to help protect and articulate that sense of value. 

I have to just say, as young and idealistic as I am, that a company cannot survive if their stated and practiced core values have nothing to do with creating a better world or improving the lives of particular individuals.  If profit is the only motive, a company will eventually only attract those who care about profit.  And people who only care about profit tend to have a negative impact on the world and lack imagination.

Do I think we should throw out the bottom line from our reports?  Not at all.  I just think we have to throw out the false dichotomy of “either/or” thinking.  We have to get rid of what Jim Collins (in “Built to Last“) calls the “Tyranny of the Or”.   You can have a commitment to healthy thriving company culture AND have an agressive profit motive.  And even if you can’t have both actually, you should still aim that high. 

That said, I would like to touch on one commonly overlooked but essential ingredient for creating an inspired and enduring workplace: imagination.

What is imagination? Well, as I understand it, imagination is our ability to create mental images, concepts, sensations and experiences that tell us something interesting and meaningful about ourselves and our world. Imagination sometimes calls up creativity from our supressed sub-consciousIt taps into the deep roots of human existence and invites others to go there.  It injects new life into a world that has become cold and stale through our culture of distractions and other defense mechanisms.

Not only that, imagination can help us solve complex problems by thinking strategically or theoretically about how to approach a problem from different angles.  Imagination sees new connections and makes sense of those connections in a powerful way. A scientist, a mathemetician and a programmer ought to use their imagination as much as an artist, philosopher or writer.

Imagination is dangerous because it disrupts apathy and narrow-minded dogmatism in our thinking and way of life.  Imagination brings commonly held assumptions to light and questions.  Imagination conceives of alternate possibilities, embraces paradox and believes in big hairy audacious goals.  (There I did it again.  A needless Jim Collins reference)

When you create space for creativity in the workplace, get the right people on board who have the drive and ability to articulate their creativity and translate it into a finished product, I think one piece of the company culture puzzle is in place.  Imagination helps bring unified vision, freshness and innovation, without which a company is sure to become divided, distracted and stagnant. 

As far as how you can specifically instill and protect imagination within a company, maybe I will take a stab at that in another post.