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.


Organic Growth: A Lesson from Nature

The behavior of cells provides a pattern for organizational growth that is, as far as I can tell, unrivaled.

When a cell reaches a certain size, it naturally splits in two. There are no meetings, no bureaucratic stages of approval. The brain does not need to sign off on the activity of cell division.

Yet, despite this split, the synergy between cells remains in tact
. Tissues form through a common structure, composition and function, just like teams within an organization.

And this synergy extends beyond tissues. Regardless of how much cells split and multiply, they coordinate to form organs and organs in turn harmonize with one another to form systems.

Despite the complex relational harmony of the cell with its neighbors, it retains a distinct cell membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

We need more teams that imitate animal cells. We should strive to imitate their delicate balance of preserving the distinctness of the parts with the unity of the whole.

Without walls providing a degree of insulation, we lose drive, team camaraderie, focus, and that distinct inertia that happens when collaboration is free to happen through face-to-face personal relationships.

With such a balance in the internal hierarchy of cell life, it's no wonder we see such incredible examples of delicate order and spontaneity in nature. See more drawings from Haeckel: http://bit.ly/HaeckelFlickr

*Most of the ideas expressed in this post are probably not original. I am not aware of any commentary on the significance of the cell membrane and its analogical application to organizations. I owe Richard Nutley thanks and credit for drawing my attention to the importance of cities with walls. Christopher Alexander has pointed out the significance in architectural design of barriers and transition areas in A Pattern Language

Don’t Make Me Think (Because I Can’t) – Stanford Study

The aesthetic case for simplicity in designing user experiences is the kind of argument you don’t even need to make.  It’s like trying to come up with reasons for maintaining a clean, orderly house over a dump.

Less obvious is the cognitive science behind simplicity.  There is new evidence that a simple design is actually better patterned after the structure (and inherent limitations) of human cognition.

In a recent Stanford study, Cognitive Control in Media Multi-taskers, a series of tests compared relative cognitive performance of heavy multi-taskers, those who take in a greater frequency of information, and light multi-taskers, those who take in less frequent amounts of information.

The unsurprising, but nevertheless fascinating outcome was this:

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

It is important to acknowledge that as designers, we’re not just “getting out of the way of the end user,” we’re also controlling the end-user. Without some structured limitation, there can be no freedom.  This universal principle shows up in our social orders, in our living spaces and it shows up in human-computer interaction design.

Simplicity isn’t just about giving users what they want, it is about training the end-user to think clearly about their next step, filter out what is not in line with that action, and quickly adjust their browsing behavior in the event of a mis-step.

To some extent, limitation is about controlling the quantity of possible paths to improve the quality of the paths and the user experience of selecting those paths.  The reality is, limitations give us space to think like dignified, rational humans and not just like impulsive consumer machines.


The Psychology of White Space

You can tell a lot about a person by how they fill the empty space in their home… or anywhere.  Even in conversation.

People talk too much when they’re nervous, if they talk at all. Often, the nature of this talk is haphazard, a little too loud and somewhat self-centered.

I think it often ends up that way with insecure brands as well.

But insecurity isn’t always the cause.  Some people talk excessively because they think it will help them control their surroundings and manipulate people around them. Some have a gift, and can usurp unsuspecting victims, wowed by charisma.  But many are completely put off by such shameless displays of narcissism. 

Why Space Matters

It is a tragedy that we respond to empty space on a page, in a conversation or in our daily routine with angst. Something in us tells us to hastily fill every trace of quiet with noise, because that space challenges us to become aware of our environments, our spaces, both internal and external. 

Empty space also challenges us to give up control and to assume a receptive attitude. Space frees us to become focused and mentally present, a precondition to any relationship. 

Your Brand has a Persona

If you want any semblance of a relationship between your brand and your customer, however abstract that relationship may be, you had better dignify your audience with space – in video, radio, graphic design, messaging, typography and any other possible means of communicating.

Attracting qualified customers and retaining them requires an art for communication.  You can’t spam or shout yourself into capturing marketshare.  You have to woo and, however far-fetched it may seem, find ways to use creative mediums and methods to converse and listen to your customers.

For better or worse, your brand has a perception, one associated with a persona – real or imaginary.  How you engage your target audience will determine whether they like this individual or not.

Listening is how good friendships are formed. And what marketer really enjoys shouting constantly?  I don’t.

I fight for the end user. – Tron

You walk into a clothing department store and are bombarded by a sales clerk demanding you be helped find what you’re looking for. Startled, you reply that you’re “just looking around”. Then you find something you like, but you don’t know where to go to learn more it and try it on. And suddenly help is nowhere to be found. Do you return to the greeter all the way at the front of the store? Maybe just pick up the phone and scream frantically for help? You try to find your way to the dressing room, but you just keep running into nooks of the building that only have bathrooms, doors to the managers office, the maintenance closet, the elevators, etc. You think about trying the clothes on in the bathroom, but then angst over being arrested for attempted shop-lifting destroy that plan. At this point, maybe you gamble and go to the check-out line, but I think many of us just give up and leave.

And many websites out there, some of them belonging to high-profile companies, still structure their user experience this way. Users are bombarded immediately upon landing on the homepage, then neglected while navigating interior pages (unless ready to “BUY THIS NOW AND CHECKOUT!!!”), and when users attempt to go it alone, they’re often lost and see no way to navigate back, forward or laterally.

That is something I didn’t imagine being able to say in the year 2011, with web 2.0 established as the new sine quo non for online businesses.

Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced websites that seem to only fight for themselves and even websites that don’t appear to fight for anything, but are merely sitting around idly, yelling at people that happen to pass within an earshot.

I think there is plenty of literature out there advocating for the use of the varied and robust web tools that allow you to increase the efficiency of your online efforts and more effectively target your respective audience.

But what often goes unstated is the fact that web analysts don’t just need awesome tools and strong left-brain analytical skills, we need to tap into and hone our creative, sympathetic right-brain capacities that empower true customer-centricity or, as I like to call it, online hospitality

Let’s face it, you can call it fancy names, but that’s all it is: hospitality applied to a particular technology. 

There’s just no way around it. Throwing marketing dollars at a problem and hiring outside consultants will only go so far. To move from a culture of good to great in the web analytics world, you’ve got to learn to relate to your end users. Great web analytics certainly requires analytical skills for answering the “what?” of behavioral data, but answering “so what?” (as Avinash Kaushik puts it) requires a sympathetic capacity to put yourself in others shoes and feel their frustration, thoughts, motivation, and satisfaction.

Sympathy takes time, practice, attention to detail, vulnerability to criticism, willingness to give before receiving, the ability to listen, the ability to understand that individuals and their experiences never perfectly fit into the groups or labels we design for them, real human relationships that have depth (if you can’t connect to someone in person, how will you connect through a website with a business objective?), self-reflection and a hell of a lot of patience.

Fight for the end-user and they will fight for you.  Sympathize with visitors to your website and they will gradually see your brand as more than a mere transactional destination, they’ll see it as a place where they feel welcomed, understood, helped, satisfied… and they’ll keep coming back.

Finally, what do we learn from Tron? We learn that when we let technology (CLU) control the virtual spaces which we inhabit, things go awry.  When a technology’s notion of perfection is allowed totalitarian rule, it often only serves the IT department’s goals for conservation of IT resources, efficiency, etc.  We can’t let the technology get between us (the marketers) and the customers we desire to reach.  In fighting for the end-user, we have to let the right-brain wield it’s sword and cut CLU’s head off or he will destroy the end user and destroy the companies we work for. 

Well, don’t bring a sword to work and don’t attack your server room.  But do make a compelling case for the end user.  Arm yourself with customer feedback from exit surveys, cart abandonment surveys and product/service update surveys.  When it comes to making a business case you’ll need quantitative and qualitative data.  Nothing speaks as loudly as your own customers, and (I will add) nothing helps tranlate complex web performance data to non-technical stakeholders quite like a customer complaint or compliment.

Excellent SEO: Satisfy your visitors, not just an algorithm

SEO is often veiled behind abstract concepts, web 2.0 lingo, and apparent structural complexity.

All of these are realities, but I think at the end of any conversation on SEO it is important to remind ourselves that there is a common thread behind every SEO tactic and every variable evaluated by Google algorithms: How credible and relevant is the content on your site and how easy is it for users to get what they want on it? 

I have heard many marketers use the complexity of SEO as a way of mystifying prospective clients, wooing them with big words and ideas.  Just do a Google search for “SEO strategy” and read any blog that comes up.  You’ll see what I mean I am sure.  But honest online marketers will you that SEO is not rocket science. 

It is possible to discuss and achieve an intuitive grasp of SEO theory and practice even if you have never looked at html in your life.

The apparent complexity of SEO is simplified by a very simple concept: user experience.  Excellent SEO requires marketers, together with developers and front-end designers, to think deeply and strategically about user experience

Algorithms don’t just look at H1 tags and alt tags anymore.  They are getting better and better at identifying themes across content on sites that they look for not only in isolated pages, but even in the site structure. 

Picture yourself in the shoes of a user who comes to an e-commerce site and looks straightaway at the site map.  Now what questions would you naturally start to ask yourself, however subconsciously?

What are the different product categories this site offers?  How are they arranged and presented within the site navigation and structure?

Looking at the site navigation and structure, how do these categories seem fit together under a common theme? Is this a consumer electronics site or more of a home appliance site? 

How does my experience of this site, as I dig deeper into it, help me move naturally and seamlessly throughout the site, so I don’t have to use the “back” button in my browser, bread crumbs, top menu nav or site map?  Am I able to scan a page and have naturally placed “landing spots” to catch my attention with something relevant and interesting if I get lost or lose interest?

On one level, these questions are obviously reducible to usability principles for web design.  Questions that every designer should be asking in the first place.  But these are also extremely relevant to internal link structure, a factor increasingly important for Google algorithms.

Many speak as if Google’s algorithms were completely incomprehensible divine mandates we must blindly follow – “You just put keywords near the top of the page cause that’s the way Google likes it.”  This is to completely overlook the purpose of Search Engine Optimization.  It is not just to get visitors to your site, it is to get the right users to your site.  It is not just about getting users to navigate around your site and spend time there, it is to give them a positive, seamless experience demonstrated in increased conversion rates and revenue

To get a grasp on SEO, it is crucial to leave behind the superstitious religion of our SEO forefathers and get in step with what Google is really doing – getting better and better at helping people use the internet.  Google is not interested in your business, they are interested in your customer.   If you can’t help the customer, sooner or later Google will probably notice and dock you for it.  This doesn’t just mean the “black hat” techniques designed to trick people into visiting a site, but also the clumsy, confusing and frustrating aspects of website content and navigation.

It is true, a web usability professional can evaluate user experience better than a web crawler… at this point in time.  But people are creating the algorithms, which means they will become increasingly keen to bad user experiences.

I’m not suggesting we don’t try to understand nuances involved in algorithms.  I’m just making the point that we can lose perspective if we make our focus the algorithms instead of the customer experience. There is common sense and intelligible purpose behind SEO.  User experience is the glue that ties together the diverse variables involved in SEO, and if you get user experience right, you are bound to take huge strides towards Search Engine Optimization.

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.