In everyday life, I enjoy balance and do my best to avoid tension. In design, however, the opposite is true. Balance and tension are two opposing aspects that keep the viewer's interest. When used successfully, they disappear and the solution feels exactly right. When we watch a tight rope walker we feel the tension and balance. It's exciting to see because we know the danger of falling. Watching someone walk across a room tends to be less thrilling.
A tight rope walker does not steady herself along the wire using a precise mathematical equation. The sense of balance is intuitive and changes with each step and each breath. Successful layouts share this sensation. A classic example is this traditional exercise. If the square and circle were placed directly in the center of the page, the solution would be expected and dull. By slightly shifting the square and creating an uncomfortable relationship between the shapes, the composition has energy.
So how can you create tension and maintain balance? Like learning to ice skate or walking a tight rope, this takes practice. There are a few ways to avoid a dull composition lacking in energy. First, don't cut the page in half. This creates equal spaces, and the eye can rest, not in a good way. Second, be careful to not create what I call doughnut design. This is when all the elements are pushed away from the centre to the edges of the page, resulting in doughnut design.
In the same vain watch out for thermometer design. This is when a designer places all the elements in the center with a narrow layout. I have a couple of ways to approach balance and create tension that are more intuitive than mathematical. If the elements are sitting directly in the middle of the layout, it is too calm and quite. When I move the elements around and alter scale to a less comfortable position, I create tension. The layout becomes top heavy and its unbalanced visual weight creates interest.
Another approach is to think of the individual pieces as bodies with gravity. Larger elements have more gravity than smaller ones and the tension occurs when they come close to each other. The goal here, is not to create a design that's irritating, it is to maintain interest. And fortunately, there is no simple formula to create tension, this is an intuitive sense. You're the tight rope walker, and only you can use your innate sense to find that perfect position.
- What makes a successful layout?
- Layout elements: shape, line, color, texture, type, and space
- Using balance and tension to create a dynamic layout
- Adding drama with contrast and scale
- Working with proportions: golden section, rule of thirds, etc.
- Creating the right grid for your design
- Choosing simplicity or excess
- Adding an element of surprise
- Making images and typography work together