Well on a very basic level we humans like things to be balanced and something that is visually balanced is more pleasing to the eye than something that is not.
The easiest way is to think of an old fashion set of scales, when the two objects being weighed are the same weight the scales will be balanced. You can have several objects on one side and they still "balance" one big object on the other side.
You will hear design geeks like me say "That panel has too much weight" and basically I am saying the same thing. Visually the panel is heavier than the other elements and is causing the whole effect to be out of balance.
The "weight" of a visual object is made up of its size, color and lightness or darkness. If a visual object on the screen does not "balance" with the other objects on the screen then it drags the viewers eye down to the heaviest part of the screen and you may not be aiming for that effect and it may well detract from the information being presented on other parts of the screen. The weight of an element can be judged using these basic rules.
- Bigger areas are heavier than smaller areas.
- Darker areas are heaver than lighter areas.
- Saturated colors are heavier than unsaturated colors.
- A stronger border is heavier than no border or a thin one.
- Texture is heavier than no texture. The denser the texture, the heavier.
- Colors like red and orange are heavier than calm colors like blue or green.
We achieve this by scanning a page, painting or website with our eyes looking for balance/imbalance and the thing with the most "Weight". Yahoo! have done some interesting research on tracking the eyes of visitors to various web sites and they have discovered that initially
- People scan the main (heaviest) part of the page first, this should give us "Context"
- They make decisions about the page in as little as three seconds based on that scan
- If they decide to stay, they move their attention to the top half of the screen.
There are 3 types of Visual Balance
1. Symmetrical (sometimes called formal) Balance
Symmetrical balance is mirror image balance. If you draw a line down the center of the page, all the objects on one side of the screen are mirrored on the other side (they may not be identical objects, but they are similar in terms of numbers of objects, colors and other elements. Sometimes they are completely identical
Here is a web site that is very nearly completely symmetrical on a vertical access down the middle of the screen. Each side left and right has a similar "weight" and is "balanced".
It is also worthy of note that while the page is balanced Left to Right, it is in a state of imbalance top to bottom. the top is "lighter" and the bottom "heavier". This leads the eye from the top of the page down to the heavier bottom of the page, which is the direction that the designer wants you to take.
Also note the slightly larger tree in the bottom right below "Flexibility", this little bit of imbalance will underline the Flexibility link visually and we will unconsciously be more interested from a visual key in that part of the screen. the designer has done this deliberately to accent the importance they feel in "Flexibility"
2. Asymmetric (Sometimes called Informal) Balance
Asymmetrical balance occurs when several smaller items on one side are balanced by a large item on the other side, or smaller items are placed further away from the center of the screen than larger items. One darker item may need to be balanced by several lighter items.
This example shows an Asymmetric design that it is balanced. The darker right hand panel is smaller that the combined left hand text panels. It is also worthy of note that the eye again is taken from the lighter left most panel through the heavier middle panel and then finally to the left hand heavier panel.
Note in the middle panel the collection of 15 thumnails is at the top.. making the centre column slightly top heavy .. this along with the larger font in the the left hand panel keep the reader's eye in the top half and content rich part of the page.
Although asymmetrical balance may appear more casual and less planned, it is usually harder to to use because the designer must plan the layout very carefully to ensure that it is still balanced. An unbalanced page or screen creates a feeling of tension, as if the page or screen might tip, or things might slide off the side, just as the unbalanced scales would tip to one side.
3. Radial Symmetry
The third type of balance is radial balance, where all elements radiate out from a center point in a circular fashion. It is very easy to maintain a focal point in radial balance, since all the elements lead your eye toward the center.
In this example whilst the designer has nodded at symmetry they have not got it right at all, the columns are not symmetrical vertically or horizontally. The differences in width are un-balanced, The colours are un-balanced, the lightness/darkness is un-balanced. You will find your eye scanning up and down left and right in the vain hoping of finding both balance and a place that can be a focus and a place to start.
So Balance is VERY important in directing your users/visitors to the bits of your app/site you want them to focus on first and then lead them on into content and from their into the depths of your other content.
But BALANCE does not operate in isolation, careful use of proportion helps both balance and allows you to lead the user even more skillfully into your app, and Proportion is what I will look at tomorrow.