Bryan Taylor

Symmetry: Sophisticated or Simplistic?

I love — and hate — symmetry. 

Anything considered to be well-designed has pulled all of its parts together and made everything fit, everything tightly making sense, with a composition that's whole and balanced. At times, this sympatico ends up taking a final form that is symmetrical. But at other times, designing with symmetry can cheat any hope of creating something clever or witty — it masks the sophistication required for design to indeed be considered good.

So, I brought this question to the team. Is symmetry good, or is it quick and easy, and not necessarily worthy of being associated with good design? The conversation that followed was profound, insightful, and naturally concluded that symmetry can be both a positive and negative attribute of design.

Photos: Symmetropia/Juliet Zulu.

In Symmetropia, a short film by Zak Davis, the sterile protagonist challenges viewers to decide: Is symmetry good, or is it robotically stifling?

My good friend Andrew Robinson recently starred in a bizarre short film created by the talented Zak Davis (formerly of Juliet Zulu). If you watch the film, you’ll likely conclude that Zak is not a fan of symmetry — and with good reason.

One of a filmmaker’s favorite devices is the rule of thirds. They divide the screen vertically and horizontally into thirds to create points of entry, as if the screen is inviting the next scene to enter stage left, drop from the sky, or disrupt the very foundation of the frame. The unoccupied spaces keep the story developing with the convenient rest of an occasionally balanced scene. 

The rule of thirds dynamically ebbs and flows throughout a film, suggestive of a story moving forward — however, this asymmetrical device often finds a fitting companion in symmetry; good design can, in fact, be found in both expressions.

Photos: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a beautiful example of the rule of thirds, moving the viewer from one scene to the next, always remaining open to whatever may come.

Asymmetrical design can invite intrigue, creating a longing within viewers for more, for resolution. But so too can balance be beautiful. Balance can resolve, can hold and wait and ask, with patience, which side of the conversation you are going to choose.

Photos: Moonrise Kingdom/Focus Features & Royal Tenenbaums/Buena Vista Pictures.

Wes Anderson is the master of cinematic balance, begging viewers to choose between uncomfortable compromises.

Every Wes Anderson film confronts viewers with this very question: With which side of the cinematic balance are you going to align? Scenes are balanced, divided in half with awkwardness on one side and compromise on the other. He prolongs scenes, waiting for his audiences to take in the gravity of each moment, and to appreciate the balanced truths of both sides of “normal” life.

As our team debated pro/anti-symmetrical perspectives at Drawn, we came to an epiphanic conclusion: Symmetry is bad when it takes the easy road out, but symmetry is strong when it holds firm with a clear conviction. Let me explain.

Brand icons created by Drawn.

Balance embeds symmetry, and symmetry begets balance. It is a stateliness presented on a silver platter, confidently telling the world, "This is who we are."

I have long said that good design is simple, but bad design is simplistic. Simple is hard — the long road to reduction and the discipline of pairing something down to its essence. Simplistic, however, cheats that process by appearing simple while actually being devoid of any merit, of anything sophisticated. It is the easy road out.

When we talked about symmetry at Drawn, we looked at all of the unsophisticated cons of this debate, and we explored all of the elegant pros. In favor of the good, we found that symmetry has balance, it has stability, it has a stateliness to it, as if presented on a silver platter, saying, “Here I am.” It holds confidence and strength. This is why we concluded that balance in logos, in corporate identities, in brand marks, is all very appealing and appropriate as these devices seek to confidently share with the world: “This, this is who we are.”

Balanced logos, symmetrical logos bespeak solidity and confidence. They are the reflection of good design. But we will also agree with Zak and crew that if not thoughtfully engaged, simplistic symmetry is nothing more than a robot in a timber farm field waiting to cleanse us of our shallow thinking.