Graphic Design Principles: Balance and White Space

Learn how to use balance and white space in your designs by distributing your elements to promote visual flow.

In the practice of graphic design, achieving balance and effectively utilizing white space are critical skills that separate amateurish compositions from more professional and visually captivating designs. Whether you’re designing a website, a logo, a poster, or marketing materials, understanding how to use balance and white space is essential for creating harmonious and engaging designs.

The Importance of Balance and White Space in Graphic Design

Why are balance and white space important in design? Here’s what using these fundamental design principles can help you achieve:

1. Directing Focus
Balance and white space play a vital role in guiding the viewer’s attention. A well-balanced composition with strategically placed white space ensures that the viewer’s focus is directed towards the most important elements of the design.

2. Enhancing Readability
Leaving “room to breathe” in your compositions can quickly improve overall readability and comprehension. The human eye naturally needs space to rest while scanning a composition for key information. Leaving some amount of white space prevents visual clutter and potential overwhelm, making it easier for viewers to digest information.

3. Conveying Professionalism
Designs that exhibit balance and utilize white space effectively tend to appear more polished and professional. They convey a sense of sophistication and clarity that attracts and retains the audience’s interest.

4. Creating Visual Hierarchy
Balance and white space aid in establishing a clear visual hierarchy within a design. By varying the amount of white space around different elements, designers can emphasize certain aspects a piece while de-emphasizing others, thus guiding the viewer’s eye through the composition. (You can view our hierarchy tutorial for more on the topic).

How to Achieve Balance in Graphic Design

Let’s delve into some actionable tips for achieving better balance and harmony in your graphic designs, starting with types of balance.

1. Symmetrical Balance

Symmetry involves arranging elements in a way that creates a mirror image on either side of a central axis. Symmetrical balance is effective at conveying a sense of stability and formality; it can make a design feel more “regal” or important – and therefore, more authoritative. Think about the effect of looking at stately classical architecture, like capitol buildings or cathedrals. The use of symmetry in these buildings helps create a “grounded” and powerful feel to their overall effect. But it’s essential to ensure that the design doesn’t become too static or predictable. Experiment with slight variations to maintain visual interest.

Symmetrical layouts are best suited for designs that need to convey a more formal nature. For example, a bank may want to design its website with more symmetrical layouts and elements to convey trust, stability, and authority.

A symmetrical layout can lend an immediate sense of order, tidiness, balance, and stability. What it lacks in “movement” or dynamism, it can make up for with a grounded feeling of trustworthiness.

2. Asymmetrical Balance

Asymmetry involves distributing visual weight unevenly across a composition while maintaining equilibrium – and yes, a design can be asymmetrical yet still balanced. This type of balance can be more dynamic and engaging than symmetry, as creating a more “unstable” flow of content adds a sense of movement, making the audience scan across the composition to find different points of emphasis.

Asymmetrical layouts help convey energy, movement, and dynamism – or can even convey a rebellious, countercultural spirit if taken to the extreme. Even a design element as simple as the Nike “Swoosh” logo conveys a great deal of “action” with its asymmetrical lean and shifts in visual weight.

Asymmetrical layouts have an inherent sense of movement as they invite the viewer’s eyes to continually scan across the page, landing on each different point for information. The question then becomes how to spatially distribute each element so that it can still feel balanced and not lopsided.

3. Radial Balance

Balance isn’t simply the distribution of weight across a single axis; radial balance refers to a compositional arrangement where elements radiate outward from a central point, creating a sense of harmony and equilibrium in all directions. Like ripples in water or the spokes of a wheel, it is characterized by symmetry around a central point, rather than an axis. In radial balance, visual elements are evenly distributed around the central point with each element exerting equal visual weight, resulting in a cohesive and dynamic composition. This technique can be particularly effective for creating designs that evoke a sense of movement, energy, or unity, as the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn towards the center and then guided outward along the radial lines. Radial balance offers designers a versatile tool for creating visually striking and engaging compositions across various mediums, from logos and posters to web layouts and illustrations.

Radial balance strikes a compromise between stability and movement, as it can draw attention to a central point but also invite the viewer to look back outward.

4. Visual Weight

Each element in a design carries its own visual weight, determined by factors such as size, color, contrast, texture, and complexity. Visual weight is another way of saying how eye-catching an element is; the more vibrant its color, high-contrast, or large it is, the more it will command attention. To achieve balance, distribute visual weight evenly throughout the composition. Balance heavier elements with lighter ones to create a harmonious equilibrium, bearing in mind that even if one element is smaller than another, it may command just as much attention if other factors help it stand out, such as color and contrast.

While larger elements can be the most eye-catching, other factors like brightness, color, and contrast, can also attract the eye and help the composition not feel entirely one-sided.

5. Grid Systems

Utilizing grid systems provides a structural framework that helps achieve balance and organization. Grids help maintain alignment and consistency so that even disparate styles of elements can be brought together in a cohesive and visually pleasing layout. Grids are an especially good idea to incorporate if you’re designing something with a higher density of information, such as a layout for a magazine or newspaper article.

Visual showing how to use grid systems in design as a top tip to create better balance and visual hierarchy in a graphic design
Grid systems are best for larger quantities of information and content. Headlines, images, and paragraphs of text require a higher degree of visual organization, so arraying them in “bite-sized chunks” with a clear grid-based alignment allows them to be scannable and therefore more digestible.

6. Scale and Proportion

Pay attention to the scale and proportion of elements within your design. Avoid overcrowding by resizing or eliminating unnecessary elements. Experiment with scale to create contrast and hierarchy, ensuring that each element contributes meaningfully to the overall composition.

Tip: Want to learn more about creating hierarchy through scale and proportion? Read our hierarchy tutorial.

7. White Space

Using negative space in design, also known as white space, will make your design more digestible. Oftentimes, beginning designers are mostly concerned with including all possible information in their designs, by any means necessary, when it’s better to prioritize key information and allow it to be the sole focus. This also means that designs can appear cluttered, without giving the eye space to rest. The importance of white space in graphic design is that it allows sufficient breathing room around elements to promote clarity (and no, it doesn’t have to actually be white; any negative space that appears “blank” will provide this breathing room around the focal elements).

At left, a canvas packed wall-to-wall with information becomes “busy” and cluttered as the eye isn’t sure where to rest. At right, bringing white space into your design will break up the composition so each element has “room to breathe” and becomes a naturally stopping point for the eye to focus.

8. Visual Flow and Movement

Consider the natural flow of the viewer’s gaze when arranging elements within your design. As you add and distribute different elements, you’ll naturally create pathways that lead the eye from one focal point to another, guiding the viewer through your intended sequence of information. The flow, or movement, of your composition is a result of what system of hierarchy you deploy – and how you use arrangement and people’s natural inclinations to read left-to-right, and top-to-bottom, to move across each piece of information.

The combination of placement and hierarchy can create a visual flow of information, guiding the viewer’s eyes on along a path. Think about how both the scale of various elements, and their proximity to one another, will dictate how the eye moves across the page.

9. Experimenting and Using Your Intuition

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different layouts, arrangements, and compositions. While learning the principles of design can help us develop of framework of understanding what works well and what doesn’t, it’s ultimately your gut feeling that will tell you whether a composition looks off balance or isn’t packing a certain punch. Keep refining and iterating (and don’t be afraid to ask others for feedback!) until you achieve a balance that feels visually satisfying and effectively communicates your message.

Looking for more design tips and tutorials? Read more DIY and Graphic Design articles on our blog.

Jeremy Elliott
Jeremy Elliott

Marketing Communications Manager at Noun Project, Designer and Illustrator.

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