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Understanding Design Basics:
Balance and Unity

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

From “balance of power” to ‘being off-balance” and “balancing a checkbook”, the word ‘balance’ describes many things in politics, psychology and our ability to manage tasks.  In the design of an environment, however, balance is what we want to create within a space juggling basic design principles.  If our space is in visual balance, studies show it helps us feel more psychologically balanced, possibly giving us a sense of greater equanimity.  

As the sixth article in the series, we’ve looked at a number of basic design principles including color, line, form, rhythm, repetition, texture, variety, proportion and scale.   When we create equilibrium it’s a little like dancing on a tightrope, surfing or doing hand-springs on a balance beam.  If we add in a little too much of that great orange color, we’re overboard in one direction.  If we don’t have enough variety, we’ve gone the other direction and we’re bored. 

Balance suggests levelness.  When sitting on a teeter-tooter, if we are on one side and a tiny child sits on the other side, our fanny is on the ground.  But if several children were to sit on the other side, then the teeter-tooter lifts us off of the ground.  How does this apply to design? 

What we see has visual weight.  Large objects, vivid colors, heavy texture, bold patterns – things that are very obvious have more visual weight.   Suppose we have a large red recliner in a white-walled room.  It’s not only obvious, but it is potentially an ‘elephant in the room’.  If we add in smaller, possibly red objects around the room, mixed with bold black and white, then we add visual weight that starts to offset the weight of the red recliner. 

If we see the red chair, not against white walls, but medium gray walls, this reduces the visual weight of the red chair, because it reduces the boldness or contrast in value of the two elements.  And if we were to change the wall finish of the room to bold-patterned wallpaper with some red and the colors of the other objects we added earlier, not only does it help to “spread out the red”, or balance the visual weight, it helps to unify the elements in the room.

We can have balance without unity and vice-versa.  However, the space would not feel harmonic or consistent and create the sense of equanimity we may desire without the successful use of both.  It would feel scattered or busy.  Unifying the elements within a space is one of the most important things we can do when designing a space.  We can balance texture with color, but how do we create unity?

Unity involves a holistic assessment of a space.  We look at all of the parts and see what their relationship or contribution is to the whole design.  For instance, we determine that a yellow painted cabinet is the focal point of a room and we add in colors, textures, forms, rhythm, etc. to integrate that cabinet into the room and bring the room into balance.  What would happen to this balance if we add a big, bright green lounge chair?  We create confusion about our focal point, throw the design out of balance and design unity goes out the window.  If we want to keep the green chair, we should reconsider our design basics, perhaps bringing in more of the same green as a color of secondary importance in the overall design, or reconsider what we see the green against if we want to downplay possible contrast. 

We might find other examples in our garden.  Each season, perhaps each day, alters the balance and unity of our garden.  As winter progresses with eliminating the presence of more and more plant material, what we see is the bare ‘bones’ of the garden.  For instance, two days ago I had radiant yellow-leaved cherry trees, creating sunshine against a gray sky.  Today, after yesterday’s storm, I have minimalist bare-branched cherry trees.  Winter is an excellent time to evaluate how the remaining plants and hardscape work together.  If those are balanced and unified, then we have a head start on the explosion of bloom in spring.  Mother Nature helps us balance plant material, by equally removing leaves from all deciduous plants, keeping the leaves or needles on evergreen plants and sending perennials back to their roots for a winter rest.  What we have to do is to balance the placement of those plants, not only according to their ability to be around for the winter, but also according to how they fit in with our basic design principles. 

Just because you finally get something into balance or create a unified design, doesn’t mean it will stay that way.  Most designs are not static – certainly a garden isn’t.  It’s a little like trying to balance our personal lives with work.  Evaluation of one’s surroundings and of one’s self is an on-going process.  Now, if my spouse and I could balance the time spent working, maintaining the house and time for each other - we would not only be more harmonious, we’d be on vacation.

UDB-Balance and UnityThe large arborvitae create balance on either side of this path, along with the colors of the shrubs and perennials in front of them.

 

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UDB-Balance and Unity-2Even in the black and white photo, this garden path is balanced and unified by the layout and plants.

 

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