A Study of Symmetry: When, Where, and Why to Use It
Finding the proper balance in your designs is an essential part of building quality visual communication. When your design is out of balance, your message gets lost in the confusion. Key elements such as proportion and hierarchy suffer, causing the design to lose its impact. Symmetry is a key factor to having proper balance in your designs. We’ll take a look at symmetry: when, where and why you should use it, and when to abandon it altogether.
Let’s start with the obvious. Symmetry in design refers to the arrangement of the elements on a page that are equal to each other on both sides. Think of a butterfly, a circle, a square, a triangle, or a rectangle. If you fold any of those forms down the center, each side would be equal in size and shape to its opposite side. This is referred to as bilateral symmetry. Shapes like the ones below can all be divided in half symmetrically on their vertical axis.
The face, as well as the rest of the human body is (usually) symmetrical as well. If you draw a line down the middle of a typical human face, you will find that if you were able to fold that image, the eyes would line up as well as the ears, both halves of the nose, and the mouth.
Symmetry doesn’t just apply to one object. Symmetry can refer to an arrangement of elements as well. If you divide the design of a page in half, and there are equal elements on both sides, then the layout is symmetrical. In the image below, the ornaments, the columns of type, and the headline are all centered. The columns of type have a gutter that runs through the vertical center of the page. This design is symmetrical.
There are other types of symmetry as well. You can observe symmetry in unexpected places. You can even find symmetry in circular designs. Radial symmetry is when an object is rotated around a circle in equidistant increments. In other words, when something is rotated around a circle to form a symmetrical design. The example below shows a square that has been rotated around a circle in 20° increments. The result is a circular pattern that is symmetrical.
If we take the same original square and simply move a copy of it at a 45° angle without rotating it, we have what is called translational symmetry. It is in the same orientation, just moved to another position.
Translational symmetry doesn’t mean that the objects have to all be the same size. In the example below, the squares move from the background to the foreground, and get bigger as they get closer. This implies motion and movement.
Examples of Symmetry in Design
Symmetry is found in all types of design. It is found in print and on the web. Here are some examples of symmetry in design.
The basic layout of the Apple Store online is set up on a symmetrical grid. If you fold the Apple Store’s layout down the middle, it would match up perfectly. Take away the extra elements from the site and you can see the blocks that make up the general layout in the example below.
Treehouse is another good example of symmetry in website design. Notice that the images of the laptop and tablet are asymmetrical, but the overall layout of the site, when broken down into its basic elements, are symmetrical, as you can see below. Slightly breaking the symmetry with the images creates a more interesting layout than if both images would have been proportionally the same.
Asymmetry has its place in design as well. You can find asymmetry in many different types of design; the concept can be applied to just about anything. Asymmetry is where the elements of the layout are not mirrored. Asymmetrical designs are visually uneven, and the columns or grids that make them up are inequal.
One popular way of using asymmetry is to incorporate the golden ratio in your design. If you are creating a 2-column layout, you would use the golden ratio to determine the optimal size of both columns in order to make them most pleasing to the eye. The ratio comes out to be 1.6. To simplify this concept, to find the golden ratio of an object, you divide its width or height by 1.6 and you get the golden ratio of the total width. Take a look at the golden ratio model below.
This ratio can be applied to graphic design and web design. You can apply it to columns of text in a book or a magazine. When designing a website, you can determine the width of the content and the sidebar by using the golden ratio. This will give you a surprisingly pleasing asymmetrical design.
Asymmetry in Design
Now it is time to take a look at asymmetry in design. The sources are abundant, and a thoughtful asymmetrical design is very pleasing to the eye. In the simple example below, you can see a title, the main content, and a notes section on the side. The layout is simple, but you immediately understand the hierarchy of the content and the order of what should be read. You read the title because it is large and bold. Then, you read the large area of text, because the type is larger than the type on the right side. Finally, you read the text in the right column last because it is the smallest.
Below is a screenshot of Twitter. Many times, the main content or the largest section is on the left. However, Twitter has placed the main content (the “tweets” themselves) on the right side.
Noupe is a very nice site that uses two wide columns. One is for the content, and the other side is for ads and sidebar information. Having the asymmetrical layout here shows that the larger portion is for the important information( such as the actual content of the site), while the smaller areas are for the secondary information (such as a list of the most recent articles or the most recent “tweets”).
Smashing Magazine — Another design blog that uses the asymmetrical layout to call attention to the main content. The site’s design is minimal, but this further emphasizes the content itself.
ABC — The ABC website is very complex and is asymmetrical in its layout. The header of the site features an asymmetrical slider, and the main content below the fold is places in the larger section, while advertisements are placed in the sidebar.
ESPN — Filled with scores and sports coverage, the site uses a distinctly asymmetrical 2-column layout. The big stories are in the larger content area, while lists of the latest news and social media sharing are built into the right column.
Symmetry and asymmetry are major factors in design. Deciding whether to use symmetry or asymmetry depends on the application, but the seemingly-innocuous choice can make or break a design. You use symmetry on designs that are traditional and require a sense of trust. Asymmetry works well when creating reading material with sidebars containing extra information, text, or links to more content. You can use the golden ratio to ensure that your layout is pleasing to the eye. No matter which one you decide to use, your designs will be much more appealing if you use the right technique for your application.
Do you prefer symmetry or asymmetry in your design work? Share your opinions in the comments section and let us know.