Understanding Symmetrical Balance

Understanding Symmetrical Balance

On an unconscious level, humans strive to create order out of chaos. In the visual sense, we seek balance when viewing design. When a design is not balanced, it creates an uneasy, disquieting feeling in the viewer.

So what is balance? Balance is when you use different artistic elements of arts (lines, shapes, color, etc.) and arrange them to create a feeling of visual weight (equilibrium) in an artwork.

Note that artistic elements are the different design elements such as color, focal point, negative space, etc.

Important facts about balance

Verical Axis



Unconsciously, the viewer imagines a vertical axis running through the center of the picture plane. The visual weight of the artistic elements on either side of the vertical axis establishes balance.




Left to right


We unconsciously view the picture plane as having a top, bottom, left and right side. Humans tend to see bilaterally (from side to side). In Western cultures, although we are often unconscious of it, we view art, text, etc., from left to right. This reflects our being taught to read from left to right.



There are two commonly used forms of balance, symmetrical and asymmetrical. In this blog, we will examine symmetrical balance, then investigate asymmetrical balance in a separate blog.

Symmetrical Balance 

Symmetrical Balance consists of the following:

  1. Formal (or bilateral) symmetry
  2. Informal (or approximate) symmetry. 

In both types of balance, the artistic elements used on the picture plane are the same on either side of the vertical axis.

Symmetrical balance is often found in architecture. Feelings associated with symmetrical balance are permanent, stable, classic, elegant, calm, and dignified. The disadvantage of symmetrical balance is that if overdone, it can become boring.

Formal symmetry (or bilateral balance)

The artistic elements are identically balanced on either side of the implied axis. One side perfectly reflects the other side.

If you were to take a scissor and through the vertical axis, then hold one of the sections against a mirror, you would successfully see the completed image again. Another form of formal symmetry is a bull’s eye target.

 Photo by Ramakant Sharda

Photo by Ramakant Sharda, pexels.com

Informal symmetry (or approximate symmetry)

Informal symmetry is similar to formal symmetry, using the same artistic elements reflected on either side of the implied axis. Still, it’s not a perfectly mirrored image from side to side. This means that they are roughly in the same place but slightly off.


Photo courtesy of Design Basics.

The artistic elements are identical on the vertical axis in the photo below. It’s just that one side is pushed up a little higher than the other side.

In the Man Ray photo below, there are some slight differences. The head shows the profile on the left, with the back of the turban to its right. The side of the cloth warping the model is higher on the right side, compared to the left. I suggest that if you limit differences between each side of the vertical axis. Three noticeable differences are a good rule of thumb.

Man Ray’s “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924)  Le Violon d’Ingres by Man Ray,1924

For each rule, there is a reason to break it! Although balance is often the goal of the artist, there may be instances due to a particular theme or topic in which you might have a design that is intentionally not balanced. In this instance, it will invoke an uneasy feeling in the viewer.

 Image not balanced

Transition, by Philip Guston, 1975 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)


Credits: Some of the information in this presentation comes from the book Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer

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