Symmetry refers to the arrangement of elements that are equal to one another on both (or more than two) sides of an image or an object. It is contrary to the dynamic and often surprising asymmetry, which involves contrasting elements and irregular shapes.
Symmetrical images elicit the feel of incontestable balance and tranquility. At the same time, the sense of order that they portray refers to tradition and formality. Examples of symmetry include cinema (Wes Anderson’s films), architecture (the Taj Mahal), nature (butterflies or snowflakes), or geometric shapes (circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, etc).
And what is symmetry in design?
Symmetry in design takes place when symmetrical shapes or forms are used to create an image. For instance, in a reflectional symmetry, there are two identical sides to the design with a central point of axis. In other words, if you cut the design in half, the left and right sides will be mirroring each other. While there are many other kinds of symmetry that exists as well, the main principle for composing these images is that it must be perfectly balanced. Thanks to this precision, symmetrical design draws attention to all areas of an image equally.
It’s also worth noting that when it comes to design, symmetry is not the same as identical mirroring. The main idea behind it lies in reflecting two or more sides and keeping the image balanced. However, it is also okay to have slight variations as long as the viewers still get a strong sense of symmetry. Symmetrical cues also happen to affect our subconsciousness. They give us a sense of familiarity and stability, and this is why our minds are naturally programmed to find them aesthetically pleasing.
Symmetry vs. Asymmetry
These seemingly contrasting approaches to design are not as easily distinguished as they may seem. In a nutshell, asymmetrical design occurs when there are two dissimilar sides of a project. Mind that even if the visual weight of an image is positioned unequally (asymmetrically), with a well thought out design, a pleasurable sense of balance can still be achieved as easily as symmetrical design. On top of that, it can play a role in adding a modernist feel to the image.
In asymmetrical design, the overall impression of the work must remain strategic and balanced since messy and disorganized designs simply aren’t attractive to viewers. To create a successful asymmetrical design, you need to figure out how to maintain a sense of balance within the image. In contrast to that, when we talk about symmetrical design, we mainly refer to its division at the central point or axis, as well as its general sense of formality and structure.
Why Visual Balance Is Important
It’s an open secret that the placement of elements can determine how successful the design will be. For this reason, designers tend to lean towards either a more symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangement of elements. If you are a bit unsure with which direction you should go for, let’s first browse through some characteristics of symmetrical design.
Symmetrical designs convey a sense of trust, thanks to its predictability and natural origin. The urge for symmetry is also hidden deeply in the subconscious part of the brain, leading to customers preference of it over asymmetry. This is why logos of companies that want to gain customer’s trust (among which are banks and insurance companies) often aim for this kind of graphic solution.
Similarly, if you are seeking for a serious, deliberate aesthetic, symmetrical design will work best. Let’s say that your company is one that organises weddings. If you want to convey classicism or romanticism within your logo design or web page, you’ll probably cater to your customers’ need for a sense of stability better with the use of a symmetrical design.
Apart from that, if you are a company that prioritizes recognition and recall, keep in mind this psychological truth: Symmetrical forms make it easier to recall information. Hence, if you apply this to your design, it can help make your brand more memorable to your customers.
Lastly, if the overall objective of your design is to achieve order and structure without putting too much attention to the arrangement of elements, a symmetrical design will probably suit you more than an asymmetrical design. Reaching balance in your design will be the ultimate objective, so if you want to save the extra design efforts for later but are still eager to develop a balanced visual concept, remember that symmetrical layouts are inherently stable. It will also likely take less effort to figure out how to create them in a compositional manner.
Types of Symmetry
Image source: University of Alberta
1) Rotational Symmetry
Rotational symmetry (a.k.a. radial symmetry) is achieved when all elements of an image or object rotate around a common center. This kind of symmetry is common in both nature and real life. Think about the arms of a starfish or sunflowers. However, when it comes to those made by humans, take a look at those paintings on the ceilings of churches, mandalas, and dartboards. All elements of these designs are equally spaced around a central point, and it can occur at any angle or frequency. On digital platforms, web designers prioritize this type of layout when they want to portray motion, as it helps them express a sense of progress or movement.
2) Translational Symmetry
This type of symmetry occurs when an element is repeated over different locations of a given space while maintaining its general or exact orientation. Simply, an image can be divided by straight lines into a sequence of identical figures. Translational symmetry results from moving a figure within a certain distance in a certain direction, which is also called translating (moving) by a vector (length and direction).
Web designers often use it as a passive element to create background patterns. If this kind of design preserves its orientation, it can technically go in any direction while its elements create a visually appealing rhythm.
3) Reflectional Symmetry
Reflectional symmetry is what we habitually call and what we think of when we hear the word “symmetry”. Also known as the “mirror effect”, it represents mirroring sides of an image around a central axis – whether it be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. The rule of thumb is that one side of the axis is reflected on the other. Essentially, using this type of symmetry in design gives equal visual weight to either side of the image.
4) Glide Reflectional Symmetry
The strict mathematical definition to this is a “transformation resulting from the composition of an orthogonal symmetry of the axis d and a translation t in the same direction as the axis d’.” Moving towards geometry, the definition of glide reflectional symmetry translates to “a type of opposite isometry of the Euclidean plane: the combination of a reflection in a line and a translation along that line”.
However, in terms of design, which in this case is what we merely want to focus on, it refers to “the symmetry that a figure has if it can be made to fit exactly onto the original, when it is translated at a given distance in a given direction and then reflected over a line”. Similar to translational symmetry, glide-reflectional symmetry exists only for infinite patterns.
Main Principles of Symmetry in Design
Whether it’s rotational, (glide) reflectional or translational symmetry, principles of symmetry can be applied in order to create a compelling composition for any type of design (web page content, poster, flyers, logos, etc.). As poet Paul Valery once said: “The universe is built on a plan the profound symmetry of which is somehow present in the inner structure of our intellect”. This sentence refers to the number one rule that symmetry brings into the world of design – balanced proportions.
By creating a seamless whole, it makes us feel as if everything fits together perfectly, and we as humans are naturally likely to absorb visual information faster when it’s symmetrical. On top of that, symmetry has also been found to be positively correlated with health, physical fitness, and levels of attractiveness.
The five general principles of design are:
- Balance – gives a sense of stability and equilibrium in the image
- Rhythm and repetition – created through repetition of line, form, colour or texture to further create a visual link within a given space
- Emphasis – refers to a single or two focal points that help create a centre of attention
- Proportion and scale – the size and relation between objects
- Harmony – an end result that can be achieved when all the design elements and principles interrelate and work together
When working on any symmetrical or asymmetrical design concepts, it’s worth taking these principles into consideration. Why? Because in order to communicate the right message within a brand’s logo or other promotional material, one needs to be extra attentive with the visuals. Remembering some basic design principles can ultimately help one to create a great and effective project. After all, symmetry is what creates balance, and balance in design is what creates harmony and aesthetically pleasing results.
When it comes to symmetry itself and its law, the Gestalt psychologists, especially Max Wertheimer, developed ‘The Law of Symmetry’ that states that elements which are symmetrical to each other tend to be perceived as a unified group. Similar to the law of similarity, this rule suggests that objects that are symmetrical with one another will be more likely to be grouped together than objects that aren’t. As you may have realized from this article, from time to time, design and science enthusiastically joins forces to create a stunning piece of work!
Symmetry Design Tips
The German term, ‘Gestalt’, literally stands for a pattern, figure, form or structure that is unified. Gestalt Psychology, on the other hand, is a movement that took off in Berlin back in the 1920s that seeked to make sense of how our minds perceive things in their whole form rather than their individual elements. Therefore, if you are familiar with Gestalt principles, you’ll know that our brains create symmetry and balance in everything we encounter.
Gestaltism is a human behavior theory that describes how the mind structures and arranges visual data. It suggests that we human beings naturally create order out of the things we see. This is where symmetry chimes in as a harmonious and stable quality that wins over any other type of design arrangement.
Above all – follow your gut instinct, because symmetry is natural and our brains are wired to detect and enjoy it. Have a first look at your work and if it seems as if something is unbalanced, there is a high chance that probably is. In order to apply and use symmetry in design to its fullest potential, achieving a sense of visual consistency, order, and stability, we need to pay attention to a few tips.
1) Use symmetry strategically
By strategically, we basically mean wisely. Since the use of symmetry or asymmetry in design can be a powerful tool, we need to decide on its aim before taking up a project. Depending on whether you want a stable, structured, and classic design or whether you are aiming for the more dynamic, risky, and less boring design, you should direct your graphic efforts accordingly. Symmetry can help you develop your company’s message clearly, however, it can do just the opposite if it is not the most suitable choice.
2) Symmetry is good for layout structure
When developing a structure for your design, you should make sure to keep the pieces of content approximately the same size across, whether it is on a web page or print material. This way, the sense of symmetry and balance can be maintained within your layout. Remember to also leave enough space for text and imagery.
Many grid layout systems tend to exhibit translational symmetry to maintain balance and proportion, so if this is also what you are looking for, you can always consider using this type of symmetry as well.
3) Use rotational symmetry to convey movement and action
In general, rotational symmetry is known for having an apparent visual impact when it comes to dynamics. This means that it can marvelously simulate motion, even on an otherwise flat and static medium. Its characteristics enable it to elicit the impression of progress or forward movement, therefore, use it to your advantage! If this is the message you want to convey within your design, don’t think twice!
Now that we’ve covered the most important things that you should know about symmetry in design, let’s take a look at some examples of it.
The Batman Logo
Image source: Canva
Logos of some of the most iconic superheroes like Spiderman, Captain America, Batman, and Wonder Woman are symmetrical. These images are perfectly balanced in order to give off a sense of eternity. In the Batman logo seen above, the design has an equal weight on both sides which allows it to appear stable. In addition, by arranging all the elements and negative space in such a way that no single area overpowers the others, this helps creates a very balanced composition within the design.
A People’s History of Gauche by Gauche
Image source: Canva
The design of this colorful album cover ‘A People’s History of Gauche’ by Gauche uses rotational symmetry. Geometric shapes seemingly rotate outwards from a specific point, and the mix of amusing tints and repetitive forms help create a mesmerizing illustration. Overall, a sense of order and balance is achieved, even when the picture seems trivial and fun.
Image source: Toyota
There is a reason why the most famous symmetrical logos often belong to car companies. This industry has to communicate stability and security when promoting their brands since cars are generally not made for fun, but rather for safe commutes. Therefore, it’s likely that customers will be more attracted to logos that evoke the feelings of protection and stability over the dynamic ones.
Image source: Brandmark
This BP logo was designed with the use of rotational symmetry. While both the colors and contrast definitely helped draw attention to the design, the motion created through rotational symmetry further communicates dynamism and modernity. The green color is absolutely tranquilizing, and it gives the logo an air of trust.
Besides having grown up in the design Industry, Christiaan has advised some of the world’s largest companies on their branding & packaging designs. Has been the resident judge for design awards, and has spoken at numerous global design & marketing events. Christiaan founded the London office of the award-winning Cartils agency, and has founded the DesignBro.com platform.