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The fourth graphic design principle I will write about is the
principle of balance. Like all principles of design, balance applies
equally to the elements within the layout as well as the overall
layout. There are two basic types of balance: formal (symmetrical) and informal
The concept of formal balance is pretty easy
to understand. With formal balance, every item on one side of the
page is repeated symmetrically on the other side. Prevalent in ancient
Roman and Greek architecture, formal balance is typically used in
institutional ads and ads requiring a look of dignity. Formal balance
can also be
somewhat boring and mundane, especially to recent creative school grads
demonstrate their creativity. Nevertheless, the most effective ads
are often the simple ones. Remember, the purpose of design is itself
quite simple; to communicate your message to the target audience
in the most effective manner
possible. Sometimes the most effective manner is to "keep it simple stupid."
One of the most effective ad types is often
referred to as the David Ogilvy layout. This layout contains a dominant visual,
a headline under the visual, and a two or three column copy block under the headline...black
letters on a white (or light colored) background -- along with the logo
and contact info which is usually placed at the bottom right hand side.
While this may seem simplistic, especially to young graphic designers who are
eager to demonstrate their prowess, it has been proven time and again to be highly
effective. William Bernbach's Volkswagen ad, discussed in my previous blog, is a classic
While this "Picture Window" ad layout itself is quite simple, the elements of this 1960 ad
design (art director, Helmut Krone) – concept, headline, visual, copy, etc. -- are of exceptional quality. This
ad is also a great example of informal balance, especially in terms of the size and composition
of the photo. The weight of the typography balances against the light gray
color of the photo background… and the small black VW.
Bernbach by the way, has "violated" one of my pet peeve rules by allowing widows and orphans in the body copy. But, upon closer examination his reasoning becomes clear.
He used his "creative license" to balance the weight of the third copy
block against the car in the photo... balancing the VW logo with the
car in the process.
Informal balance still requires balanced optical weight but
the weight is distributed differently. Informal balance is more dynamic and exciting
and it usually results in a more interesting design... and interesting and
unusual shapes tend to attract attention. With informal balance, all of the
elements are still balanced, but the balance can be distributed in terms of
color, value, shape, position, texture and direction.
The use of informal
balance requires a higher level of artistic ability than does formal balance.
The study of classical art is invaluable in helping to develop a better
understanding of informal balance. In the Volkswagen ad, the photo composition of
the car uses informal balance (directional balance) beautifully. This technique
is used to sell through the "unique selling proposition" of the ad as presented
in the “Think Small” headline and copy -- and Bernbach's copywriting was truly masterful.
I would argue, by the way, that the ad uses a combination of both formal and informal balance to achieve its objective. [There is good reason why this ad is considered
the greatest ad of all time.] Regardless of the type of balance, the optical center (a
point just above center and slightly to the left) should always act as the ads pivot.
There is also a third type of balance –
radial balance. This is when all the elements of the design “radiate” from a
center point in a circular fashion. Radial balance is a great way to lead the
eye into the focal point in the center of the ad.