In terms of visual perception, symmetry is one of the most fundamental and timeless principles in design. By its very nature, it conveys balance, harmony, and stability. Symmetry is achieved when the visual elements of a design reach a state of equilibrium and organised on a central axis.
Symmetry maintains a long historical association with physical beauty – either natural or man-made. A person’s attractiveness is often based on the symmetry of their face. Furthermore, there are numerous symmetrical examples in nature such as butterfly wings or the face of a sunflower. In man-made symmetry, architecture is a key example of how aesthetic balance and structural utility create harmony. Just look at the Taj Mahal or (pre-fire) Notre Dame Cathedral.
There are three types of basic symmetry. The first is reflective, which is created by mirroring equivalent elements on opposite side of a central axis. Also known as bilateral symmetry, it can be achieved either horizontally (like a landscape reflecting off a pond) or horizontally (like a Rorschach inkblot).
Next is rotative symmetry, where equivalent elements are rotated outwards from a common centre point. Also known as radial symmetry, think of it as a perfectly sliced pizza where each vertical section is identical in shape and size. Examples in architecture include the Lotus Temple in Delhi and Notre Dame Cathedral’s (thankfully undamaged) stained-glass window.
Translational symmetry places equivalent elements along a basic orientation throughout a composition. They essentially repeat a pattern across a plane, like tartan or honeycomb cells. Continuous patterns are also common in surfaces like friezes and facades from ancient Greek and Roman architecture.
Trying to find a balance
Since symmetrical forms are viewed as figure elements rather than ground elements, they tend to resonate more with audiences compared to other compositional organisations. The simplicity and balance of symmetrical forms are immediately more recognisable to audiences than asymmetrical forms.
A key symmetrical relationship that is vital to design is the ‘golden mean’, which is related to the Fibonacci sequence. It basically tries to quantify aesthetics in relation to proportion. Pseudo-scientists use the ‘golden mean’ to explain why we find certain designs, faces, and buildings more visually appealing.
The ‘golden mean’ is approximately 1:1.61 and art historians believe Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper perfectly demonstrates this ‘divine proportion’. Within this iconic painting, key dimensions of the room, table, and ornamental shields all abiding by the ‘golden mean’.
There is something visually satisfying about symmetry, which is why it has been such an important element in art and design for centuries. Since it’s much easier to create impact with symmetrical over asymmetrical designs, it could be a vital element to your next design.