Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2020 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
This article analyses how designers might achieve compositional balance by employing the symmetry principle of Gestalt Theory. A composition can be symmetrical if the objects on both sides of the axis are arranged identically, or it can be asymmetrical if the weight and arrangement of the elements on both sides are different. We will examine how the visual property of symmetry or asymmetry can serve as a foundation for aesthetically pleasing images.
Gestalt Principles of Perception
A perspective on the importance of Gestalt Theory to graphic design
“THE WHOLE IS OTHER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS”
(Gestalt Psychologist, Kurt Koffka)
“Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communications: talent, creative ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process. “
Paul Rand grasped the significance of these sciences to the potential of communication – a designer’s primary objective. The most valuable aspect of our trade is our capacity to give visual form to images and concepts conceived by ourselves or our clients. This form-making takes major technical and creative abilities in addition to expertise and hard labour, but above all else, it requires psychology, adaptable thought, and ongoing self-development.
When developing our designs, we must weigh intuition, critical thought, and a thorough comprehension of our audience’s behaviour. These visual perception principles are the foundation of our design education.
That’s why Gestalt Theory is so beneficial. It is all about these visual concepts that assist us in identifying the patterns that allow us to express the message effectively. The principles of the Gestalt Theory are not only valuable to our personal growth but essential to nurture our artistic vision and creativity as it allows us to learn how humans see visual data and react to it.
Why should designers understand their viewers?
What occurs when someone sees the designs you create? How do the designs influence their minds? How do they respond? The designer’s professional survival depends on the designer’s ability to address these questions. Only if you understand how your designs are perceived and interpreted by viewers, you’ll be able to influence their human perception and express your message successfully.
The human mind organises parts into entire figures and makes sense of these figures as a whole. One example is how our mind views a storefront window. When a person looks at the window, they see the entire one, not just its individual components. It does not see a dress, plus a mannequin, plus a blouse, plus a radio, plus a stand, etc. It does not split the window into parts but sees it as a unified composition.
The visual is of “everything together”; it depicts everything collectively. The effect of this visual picture of “everything together” is substantially different from simply observing the window front’s individual components.
As a graphic designer, this is why you need to understand your audience. You will have the necessary data to properly select the colours, tone of voice, typefaces, and other elements that will speak the language of your target audience. You will comprehend their cultural context, so if, for example, a particular colour has different implications in different cultures, you will be able to choose the most appropriate palette so as not to cause offence.
How Gestalt Theory has contributed to design
Gestalt Theory was initially presented to psychology, but soon after, visual perception theorists such as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka began using it. The basic premise was that the human mind organises information into a unified shape that can be comprehended. In other words, the human mind produces a unitary form that can be understood.
Gestalt Theory teaches a list of methods (or principles) employed by the human mind to determine how items “get together”. This list of the fundamental tenets of visual perception is instrumental for designers since it teaches when, where and how the perception of elements is detected by our human mind and the resulting reactions.
The principle of symmetry
Elements with symmetry are viewed as belonging to the same group. A great synonym for the symmetry principle would be coherence or the balanced variety in unity. Creating a pleasing effect in a design requires appropriate order, coordination, and aesthetic appearance.
We can use three major types of symmetry in graphic design: translational, reflectional, and rotational.
One element preserves its orientation while being repositioned in a different location. Translational symmetry occurs when proportionate intervals are maintained while repeatedly moving the same object.
In translational symmetry, one element is shifted in any direction within a given distance without altering its inherent orientation. Consider wallpapers, architectural details, or a store’s menu items as examples.
The graphic on the Swarovski display of watches maintains proportionate intervals and relates them to dynamics.
Reflection symmetry creates a mirror effect by arranging positive and negative elements in a composition. It creates two halves that are mirror images of each other along a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal axis.
Think of elements that revolve around a central axis that exhibit this bilateral symmetry. Typically, balanced compositions are harmonious, steady, and aesthetically pleasing. Consider the human face when one feature mirrors another. This is why a face with perfect symmetry is so beautiful.
The elements in rotation are symmetrical about a central point when rotated about a common axis. Consider the flower petals that surround a central point. Or, for example, flowers, fruits, snowflakes, starfish, jellyfish, and various species of sea anemones, etc.
This symmetry is generated on most websites when identical elements are arranged around a central visual point, as in the logo example below, to convey speed and motion.
The importance of symmetry
The stability and order of symmetry convey the comfortable sensation that everything is in its proper place. Symmetry provides clarity. It also delivers site-specific information, such as instructions or video tutorials. Because our minds and eyes locate order and symmetry while perceiving elements, the principle of symmetry should be applied to convey information rapidly.
And what about asymmetry?
Asymmetry, on the other hand, refers to an imbalanced appearance. They diminish the concentration of attention on certain design components. Thus, asymmetry should be employed with caution. The use of asymmetry in your website or graphic design will depend on your needs and goals, according to what you prefer to highlight in the composition.
Asymmetrical compositions often look dynamic and exciting because they evoke a modernistic mood full of movement, energy, and strength. However, at the same time, it becomes increasingly more difficult to achieve as the complexion of the composition increases. Space will be utilised with greater spontaneity and unpredictability, allowing for greater flexibility of expression. It can be a significant creative challenge! The concept of balance can transform your regular designs into unforgettable ones.
Both symmetry and asymmetry create a favourable effect or even contrast in composition to draw greater attention to the components. Using symmetry and asymmetry effectively is the key to effectively telling your story through graphic design.
Where to use symmetry: examples
Compositional balance is the primary application of the symmetry principle; however, it is not the only Gestalt concept used. In Gestalt Psychology, one concept builds onto the next. They make a filter to bring up the perfect communication message.
Because balanced symmetry transfers information fast, symmetrical designs tend to be visually lighter than asymmetrical designs. Furthermore, the elements are frequently repeated in blocks and backgrounds to create patterns and content pieces. In comparison, asymmetrical elements, with their tendency to appear more visually dynamic, seek to attract the audience’s attention.
Example of symmetrical balance: graceful and simplicity
Just like many other ads for Apple, a beautiful symmetrical balance is shown on this page. Information and mastering visual concepts equal effective communication.
Example of asymmetrical balance: interesting & dynamic
To return to the wise words of Paul Rand, however, designers must never forget that the primary objective of a design is to transmit a message to its viewers clearly.
“Graphic design, which evokes the symmetria of Vitruvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by the computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates, is not good design if it does not communicate. “
Symmetry and asymmetry are not difficult concepts to grasp. What is crucial is their proper application in online and graphic design. Always think of symmetry and balance together. They are not identical, yet they lead to the same outcome.
Symmetry is the repeating of an image across a central point. Balance makes the design look equally weighted throughout the composition. Balance is the key to brilliant design, while symmetry is the tool to reach the goal.
Learn how to use symmetry and asymmetry appropriately, together with the other Gestalt principles, and you’ll have the key to effectively delivering your message through online or graphic design. Make your images spectacular.
Learning the Gestalt principles is an essential skill for every designer. Applying them well will vastly improve the aesthetics of your design, its usability, and its friendliness to end users. If you’re interested, take a look at some of the other articles we’ve written on the perspective principles behind Gestalt theory.
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