The principle of symmetry in graphic design

The late poet Paul Valery wrote, “The universe is built on a plan the profound symmetry of which is somehow present in the inner structure of our intellect.”

That is, symmetry is built into our biology and nature—in the wings of a butterfly; in the petals of a flower; in our two eyes, ears, and arms. It’s no surprise, then, that symmetry is pleasing to us as human beings.

symmetry in graphic design

Photo by Fleur via Unsplash.

As Dave Roos wrote for How Stuff Works, “The simple explanation for our attraction to symmetry is that it's familiar. Symmetrical objects and images play by the rules that our brains are programmed to recognize easily.”

In fact, symmetry has been found to positively correlate with health, physical fitness, and levels of attractiveness according to others.

“We know that many organisms across nature aim for perfect symmetry, and often get close to it, within about one percent in adult humans,” evolutionary biologist and professor Robert Trivers told Aeon. “Symmetries give you extra powers, beyond just doubling something. Think of your two symmetrical eyes with their overlapping fields of vision—they give your brain enough information to create three-dimensional sight.”

Similarly, symmetry can be a crucial principle of design. It conveys a sense of balance, order, and harmony. And it helps us quickly absorb and make sense of visual information.

That’s why we’re going to break down what you need to know about symmetry in graphic design—including what it entails, why it’s so important, and creative uses for different types of symmetry.

Let’s take a look.

What is symmetry in graphic design?

According to Merriam-Webster, “symmetry” is defined as “balanced proportions” or “beauty of form arising from balanced proportions.” It also defines being symmetrical as having “correspondence in size, shape, and relative position of parts on opposite sides of a dividing line or median plane or about a center or axis.”

This balance can often be aesthetically pleasing. It evens out the “visual weight” of an image so our eyes are not drawn to one element or area in particular. And it helps us quickly absorb and make sense of visual information.

“Balancing a composition involves arranging both positive elements and negative space in such a way that no one area of the design overpowers other areas,” Steven Bradley wrote for Smashing Magazine. “Everything works together and fits together in a seamless whole. The individual parts contribute to their sum but don’t try to become the sum.”

Just consider the logos of some of the most iconic superheroes like Spiderman, Captain America, Batman, and Wonder Woman:

symmetry in graphic design

The Batman logo is a perfect example of a symmetrical design. Image via Pixabay.

Design your own symmetrical logos and icons in Canva with templates like White and Gold Community & Non-profit Logo and Red Box Business Logo. Thanks to the power of symmetry, they’re enjoyable to look at and easy to understand, all in one little square. Simply add your business name or upload your own color palette and graphics to make these symmetrical logos your own.

 

These icons are meant to be instantly recognizable and associated with power and goodness. Symmetry plays a part in that by quickly communicating a sense of structure and balance.

Why is symmetry in graphic design important?

Symmetry fulfills our innate desire to see order and harmony in our world. In graphic design, symmetrical visuals are created with purpose and precision, and they can convey simplicity and formality that is removed from chaos.

"The search for symmetry, and the emotional pleasure we derive when we find it, must help us make sense of the world around us,” physicist Alan Lightman wrote in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. “Symmetry is also economy. Symmetry is simplicity. Symmetry is elegance."

A lack of symmetry, on the other hand, can create a sense of disorder and imbalance. And it can pull the focus on one or more specific elements of a design, as opposed to the whole design as a comprehensive image.

“Just as in the physical world, visual balance is a good thing,” Bradley wrote. “You would balance a design visually because you want to balance the points of interest in your composition so that viewers spend time with all of the information you want to convey.”

The covers of Michael Chabon's books often incorporate symmetry. These covers—designed by Will Staehle—for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, for example, are full of visual elements. Without proper balance, they could easily seem overwhelming. But symmetry allows these disparate elements to exist in harmony.

symmetry in graphic design

symmetry in graphic design

 

Design your own symmetrical book covers in Canva with templates like Dark Blue and Cyan Book Cover and Illustrated Business Book Cover. These covers provide a solid foundation for books related to business, organization, and productivity. Their symmetry creates a sense of ease, authority, and beauty that complement any textual elements or pops of color you may use.

 

Still, part of understanding the importance of symmetry in graphic design is also understanding when not to use it—and overuse it. Asymmetry, which we’ll get to in the next section, has its merits. And too much bilateral symmetry (a direct copy across an axis) can sometimes dull an image.

As Paul Rand—the man who “single-handedly invented modern graphic design in the US”—wrote, “Bilateral symmetry offers the spectator too simple and too obvious a statement. It offers him little or no intellectual pleasure, no challenge. For the pleasure derived from observing asymmetric arrangements lies partly in overcoming resistances which, consciously or not, the spectator has in his own mind, thus acquiring some sort of aesthetic satisfaction.”

That’s why, if you do use symmetry in graphic design, it’s important to understand have a reason. What point are your trying to convey? How are you trying to make the viewer feel and why are you trying to make them feel that way?

As Rand wrote in his book A Designer’s Art, “Graphic design which evokes the symmetria of Vitruvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates is not good design if it does not communicate.”

Keep these lessons in mind when incorporating symmetry into your visual creations.

What are the types of symmetry in graphic design?

Symmetry can be created in a range of different ways, depending on where the axis is and how you want to balance your composition.

Here are four different types of symmetry you might use.

Bilateral symmetry

Bilateral symmetry, or reflection symmetry, is when a visual element is reflected or mirrored across an axis. Think butterfly wings or those inkblot Rorschach test images. This type is probably the first that comes to mind when you think “symmetry.”

In bilateral symmetry, the axis can run right down the middle of your visual, or it can be diagonal or horizontal. In fact, it can go in any direction, as long as the image is reflected across that plane.

Just look at this Oreo ad from the brand’s 2015 “Wonderfilled” campaign. If you folded it in half, each side would be roughly the same (disregarding the text, of course). The design is fun, whimsical, and colorful, but it doesn’t feel chaotic. Instead, it feels structured and precise because of the use of bilateral symmetry.

symmetry in graphic design

Ads of the World

Create your own symmetrical flyers and posters in Canva with a template like Flash Sale Promo Flyer. This design uses reflection symmetry across both the horizontal and vertical axis. It spells out “SALE” six times, but doesn’t feel overwhelming because of the playful symmetry that ties the entire composition together.

Rotational symmetry

Rotational symmetry, or radial symmetry, occurs when a visual element is rotated around a central point. Think mandalas, sunflowers, and dartboards.

This album cover by Gauche, for example, uses rotational symmetry. The colorful, geometric shapes rotate out from a specific point, creating a mesmerizing illustration that reels the viewer in and communicates a sense of order and balance — even amidst the controlled chaos of colors and shapes.

symmetry in graphic design

Album cover by Gauche. Image via Bandcamp.

Design your own album covers in Canva with templates like Abstract Music Album Cover and Storm Album Cover. Music, in particular, evokes ideas of harmony, rhythm, and energy that flows in a certain direction. Symmetrical shapes and designs can help illustrate these ideas and create a connecting thread between audio and visual works of art.

As seen in this album cover, rotational symmetry is an effective strategy for communicating a sense of cyclical balance and harmony and drawing the viewer’s focus to or away from a central point in your design.

Translational symmetry

Translational symmetry refers to repeating visual elements, like patterns. As long as these elements maintain the same orientation—i.e. they’re not flipped around—they form a type of symmetry.

Just consider these calendars from Karen Keung, for example. They demonstrate the properties of translational symmetry using different geometric shapes.

symmetry in graphic design

Design by Karen Kreung. Image via Behance.

Like rotational symmetry, translational symmetry can convey a sense of motion and rhythm within a composition. If you’re worried that bilateral symmetry may be too static or predictable for your design, you might consider using one of these types of symmetry to shake up your visuals.

Asymmetry

Any lesson about symmetry is also, inevitably, a lesson about asymmetry. Naturally, if an image isn’t symmetrical, it can be considered asymmetrical by default. Asymmetry occurs when the visual weight of elements across an axis are unequal or imbalanced.

Like symmetry, asymmetry is also common in nature—and in ourselves. Think about the branches of a tree, the left and right sides of our brains, being left-handed and right-handed. Similarly, asymmetry in graphic design can be used to convey variety, complexity, and unpredictability. It can help you draw attention to certain elements and create a more active, dynamic composition.

Just look at this #WeAccept campaign from Airbnb. In 2017, the home-sharing service promoted its commitment to provide short-term housing to 100,000 people in need over the next five years because “no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love, or who you worship, you deserve to belong.” To illustrate this message, Airbnb created a video of different people’s faces spliced together across a central axis.

symmetry in graphic design

#WeAccept campaign by AirBnB. Image via AirBnB.

As demonstrated by this video, asymmetry doesn’t necessarily have to include a mess of visual elements. It can also be achieved by tweaking one small part of a symmetrical design or by breaking up a large visual element on one side of the axis into smaller elements on the other side.

“Much in the same way that similarity and contrast work together, you can combine symmetry and asymmetry to good effect,” Bradley wrote. “Balance symmetrical forms in an asymmetrical way, or balance asymmetrical forms symmetrically. Break up symmetrical forms with a random mark to add interest. Contrast symmetry and asymmetry in your composition to make elements get more attention.”

That is, you can choose to make a strictly symmetrical image, play around with asymmetry, or strike a delicate balance between the two.

The Business Woman Promotional A4 Flyer template is a great example of asymmetrical design. With the image, the alignment of the text, and the color, it comes together nicely.

Achieving the balance of symmetry

Symmetry is one of the most important principles of design. It has the power to create balance, harmony, and order in your compositions. It taps into our psychology and nature, which instinctually wants to find harmony in ourselves and our world.

That’s why symmetry—and its counterpart, asymmetry—can have such an impact on the compositions we create and the visuals we respond to. So whether you’re creating a wedding invitation, book jacket, album cover, or even flyer, consider how different types of symmetry can play into your creation, and how you can use these tools to build even more engaging designs.

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