Successful graphic designers know that mastering the visual concept of balance is the key to effective communication. When your designs achieve balance—which can happen with both symmetrical and asymmetrical designs—they’ll achieve greater harmony, and your audience will use less energy taking in the information.
Understanding symmetry vs. asymmetry isn’t difficult, but getting it just right can be tricky at first. That’s why we’re going to go through a few examples to ensure everything is crystal clear.
What is visual balance? And what is symmetry?
Symmetry and balance are related. But they’re not quite the same thing. Take a look at their definitions:
Symmetry is the visual quality of repeating parts of an image across an axis, along a path or around a center.
Asymmetry, on the other hand, refers to anything that isn’t symmetrical.
Balance is the visual principle of making a design appear equally weighted throughout the composition.
Balance measures the visual weight of your composition, which impacts how much each element attracts your audience’s attention.
There are four basic ways to achieve balance:
Symmetrical balance occurs when your composition has the same visual weight on each side of an axis. Imagine perfect mirror images looking at each other around a central axis.
This type of balance evokes gracefulness and simplicity. It’s pleasing to look at, but also very predictable.
A composition with unequal weight on both sides has asymmetrical balance.
More visually interesting than its symmetrical counterpart, this visual technique has a large focal point on one side with several, less significant focal points on the other.
When visual elements radiate out of a common center point, this is called radial balance. Imagine rays of sunlight emanating from the sun.
Think of mosaic balance as organized chaos that might look like noise, but actually creates balance thanks to the absence of a distinct focal point.
Each element shares a common emphasis, and no single element dominates the composition.
The different types of symmetry and asymmetry
Balance is the key to great design, but symmetry is one of the tools you can use to get there. Here’s a quick look at the four types of symmetry.
Imagine taking an apple and cutting it in half. Both sides are mirror images across a center line, and this is reflectional symmetry.
Also known as bilateral symmetry, you’ll find this technique used vertically, horizontally or diagonally.
Reflectional symmetry can be perfect symmetry, meaning both sides of the image are identical. However, many instances—a face, for example—will feature subtle differences on each side.
Think of the same shape repeating itself over and over again.
This is translational symmetry—when visual elements repeat across a location in space. This repetition can happen for any length or in any direction.
Imagine a car’s moving wheels and spinning windmills, and you’ve got rotational symmetry.
Also known as radial symmetry, this technique features all visual elements rotating around a center at any angle. This type of symmetry is ideal for capturing a sense of motion, dynamic action or speed.
Glide reflectional symmetry
We’ve all seen footsteps in the sand or snow. Think about how each step produces a reflection of the opposite foot, but because of movement, each footprint doesn’t line up with the other.
Glide reflectional symmetry is a play on reflectional symmetry, but it involves a shift in the position of each mirror image. Like rotational symmetry, it also conveys a sense of moving forward.
If a composition doesn’t fit into the above categories, it’s probably asymmetrical.
As a designer, asymmetry both challenges and helps you. Balanced, symmetrical designs are typically more engaging because our eyes find them naturally more interesting and attractive.
You have to work a little harder to achieve balance with asymmetrical visual elements, but you’ll also have the liberty to experiment with unexpected patterns and forms, in a way you just can’t with symmetry.
Examples of balance in graphic design
The best way to learn about balance is to look at a few real world examples of symmetry and asymmetry in action.
The Airbnb logo is an example of pure reflectional symmetry.
If you draw a vertical line right down the middle, both halves are perfectly the same. To create reflectional symmetry like this, use simple shapes and go for a minimalist logo that doesn’t have many complicated parts to it.
Google’s wordmark is an example of asymmetrical balance.
The first three letters are noticeably wider than the last three letters, creating a sense of greater visual weight in the first half of the wordmark.
Apple’s Mac webpage gives us a stunning example of great reflectional symmetry.
Not only are the MacBook screens of equal length on both sides of the vertical, central axis, but the lines of typography in the headline and subheading above are also equidistant on both sides of the axis.
This news magazine website features columns of different lengths and greater visual weight of images on its left side for an overall appearance that struggles to achieve balance.
Greater visual balance could be achieved by making the columns the same length and equally distributing the images on both sides of the vertical, central axis.
With its simple design, the InClean business card achieves perfect symmetry and balance.
Perfectly centered copy with an abundance of white space keep this minimalist composition balanced and trendy.
This business card is ultra-minimalist with just the word “Hallo” printed on one side of it—a composition with clear asymmetry and intentional imbalance.
Some might find the large typeface too overpowering. Others might see that as the point of the design. A composition like this sits on the line between balanced and imbalanced.
Understand balance to design better products
Knowing how to use symmetry and asymmetry properly is the key to communicating your story through graphic design. By harnessing the principle of good balance, you can turn ordinary designs into something spectacular and memorable.
This article was written by Marc Schenker with input from Sam Lundquist.