Do you ever notice that there are certain spaces that just feel right as soon as you enter them, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? The secret is that these spaces have a balanced composition of elements. Balance promotes a sense of stability. A lack of balance creates tension. You may not know what it is about any particular element or feature that results in this sense of stability, but most of the time, the proper arrangement of many elements working in concert create a balance of positive and negative space. As a wise man once said, “the secret to a collage is knowing when you’re through.”
Most design professionals study composition theory and the psychological perception of elements that comprise the supporting features of a main subject. Of particular note is the study of how to piece elements together to achieve a sense of balance. Rudolf Arnheim, a German-born author and perceptual psychologist theorized that vision and perception are an actively creative understanding, such that we subconsciously attempt to organize our perception of elements into recognizable structures and forms in order to understand them.
The corollary is that a space without balance is not easily understood, so our minds try to apply order to what it sees. The human brain is amazing at making this work, but if a certain threshold of balance is not met, this subconscious "organization" cannot be accomplished. When this happens, confusion is created and tension is the end result.
Here are some practical tips to achieving balance in your space with common elements that end up in most rooms:
Create a strong focal point and make it the subject of your space. This will anchor the room. Sometimes it’s a sofa, sometimes it’s a fireplace. Just remember that other elements should complement it.
Get your furniture spayed or neutered! Resist the urge to over-populate your space. If you are furnishing a space and there seems to be some spare room, remember that’s where you, your friends, your family, and your pets go. Give your space some room to live in it.
Layer your lighting. When everything is lit with the same tone, temperature, and luminosity, your space will lack depth. Play with your dimmers, under-light your cabinets and remember that one large fixture will not create a well-lit space. (But do keep in mind the dramatic effect of a large fixture.)
Outlet covers and switch plates should be made from the same material and color. They should be installed at the same height and they should be level.
Your doors and windows should be the same height and aligned at the top edge, so, any large art pieces should be guided by this top line.
Artwork should align with a strong line in the room. Try to hang artwork so that the top of each piece aligns with a strong line, or you can align the artwork with window and door frames in the room. If none of these can be accomplished, at least try to keep #7 below, in mind.
When placing artwork, be aware of the fact that the eyes’ automatic focal point is almost always ¾ up from the bottom of the piece.
Accent colors should be used throughout the room in small doses. These pieces don’t need to be the same size or shape, but should give a sense of congruence to the space.
Balance the main feature or an overpowering element with other elements in the room so that it does not dominate the composition. The goal is to see the whole composition, even if the main subject is a pink elephant.
Follow Jan Tschichold’s rule that “white space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.” Tschichold was a German typographer, book designer and writer, who had a great understanding for dividing spaces into pleasing proportions. Don’t neglect your background.
Design professionals can provide more insight and a great contribution in designing your space. Beyond having good taste, most are trained in spatial elements and relationships. A large part of the profession is applying design principles to spaces of any shape or size to achieve that sense of balance. Try these tips at home and get a sense of how you can do this too.