Design Series: Balance

This post is a companion to the Quilting…for the Rest of Us podcast episode on Balance.

As a reminder, the general design definition that we are using is:  Design is a problem solving activity within all the arts, placing or creating subject matter so it is of visual significance and interesting to the artist. (from The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed)

Balance is a Principle of Design.

Definition of balance:

  1. Balance is used to describe the distribution of visual weight in a design. Visual weight refers to the parts of the design that appear larger, that appear to come forward, or that appear to have more importance. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 4)
  2. Balance is concerned with the distribution of visual interest — what is placed where in a composition. (
  3. Balance refers to the ways in which the elements (lines, shapes, colors, textures, etc.) of a piece are arranged. (
  4. Balance is an art and design principle concerned with the arrangement of one or more elements in a work of art so that they appear symmetrical (even) or asymmetrical (uneven) in design and proportion. (

You can affect balance by using some elements of design including size, placement, color and texture. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 4)

There are four main types of balance:

  • symmetrical: This is also called formal balance (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 4). Ruth McDowell explains, in her Symmetry book, that there are 17 types of symmetry. The most common types of symmetry used in quiltmaking are noted with an asterisk. They are:
    • mirror *
    • two mirrors
    • four mirrors
    • six mirrors
    • mirrored kites
    • mirrored triangles
    • rotational *
      • 60 degrees
      • 90 degrees
      • 120 degrees
      • 180 degrees
    • translational *
    • glide *
    • two glides
    • staggered pairs
    • staggered fours
    • glides and mirrors
    • pinwheels and mirrors
  • radial 
  • crystallographic
  • asymmetrical 
Finished LeMoyne Star
Finished LeMoyne Star

Symmetrical Balance:

  • “Symmetrical balance, or symmetry, is the regular arrangement of similar parts in a predictable pattern. Ruth McDowell, in her book Symmetry, explains that there are seventeen different kinds of symmetry based on the scientific study of crystallography.” (Fearless Design, pg.17).
  • “Symmetrical balance repeats similar shapes, colors, values, lines , or other elements on both halves of the composition.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5); “One side, in effect, becomes a mirror image of the other” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.80)
    • LeMoyne Star
    • Eva’s Delight
    • Double 4 Patch
    • Nine Patch  (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5)
    • Irish chain (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5)
    • Log Cabin (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5)
    • Jacob’s Ladder (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5)
    • Drunkard’s Path (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5)

“The formality of a grid can be used to lend some organization to a complex or busy image.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 5)

“The formal quality in symmetry imparts an immediate feeling of permanence, strength, and stability. Such qualities are are important in public buildings to suggest the dignity and power of a government.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.80)

“Symmetrical balance does not, by itself, preordain any specific visual result” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.81). You have to choose the elements that you put into a symmetrically balanced design.

Radial Balance

  • “Radial balance is based on elements radiating from a central point.” ” Radial balance is based on divisions of a circle. To achieve radial balance, it is best to use five or more divisions. Using 4 divisions would be the same as rotational symmetry.” (Fearless Design, pg.18)
    • Dresden Plate
    • Winding ways
    • Mariner’s Compass
    • Medallion quilts radiate out from a large center motif to create overall radial balance. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 6)
      • the sun with its emanating rays (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.94)
      • flowers (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.94)
      • round form of domed building (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.94)
      • tibetan mandalas (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.94)
  • Also called circular balance. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 6)

Radial balance is sometimes considered a refinement of symmetrical or asymmetrical balance “depending on whether the focus occurs in the middle or off center.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.94)

The advantage of a radial design “is the clear emphasis on the center and the unity that this form of design suggests.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.94)

Crystallographic Balance

  • Crystallographic balance is a field of pattern scattered all over the surface. Essentially it is balance without a focal point. It is balanced, because it is the same all over.” (Fearless Design, pg.18)
    • scattered designs on fabric (calicos?)
    • allover fabric designs, such as dots or small flowers, are often companion prints to a fabric with a large focal point motif, such as prints by Philip Jacobs. These types of fabrics are used for resting places when the whole line is used together. The allover print is usually a crystallographic balanced design.
      • Tumbling Blocks
    • Crystallographic balance, or “allover patterns without a focal point” are balanced because they have “equal emphasis over a whole composition” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 6) or equal emphasis over the whole composition. Pentak & Lauer describe this as “the same weight or eye attraction literally everywhere” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.96)

Crystallographic balance is also considered a “refinement of symmetrical balance,” but it is “truly a different impression from our usual concept of symmetrical balance.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg.96)

“Many quilts use crystallographic balance in a grid. The block setting traditionally used for quilts lends itself to overall design balance.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 7)

Beach Town Front
Beach Town Front

Asymmetrical Balance

  • “…parts of the composition are not the same, but are balanced in placement and visual weight. Think of a teeter-totter. Two people of equal weight in the same position on each end represent symmetrical balance. Two people of unequal weight” means that the heavier person is closer to the fulcrum or balance point, which “can also balance the teeter-totter. Asymmetrical balance is equal, but not the same. (Fearless Design, pg.18)
    • Example: if you have a dark green element towards the bottom right hand corner of your quilt, you will need to put smaller elements, that together achieve a similar weight to the larger item towards the upper left hand corner.
    • “…balance is achieved with dissimilar objects that have equal visual weight or equal eye attraction.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.84)
      • “…dissimilar objects are equally pleasing too the eye.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.86)
      • This is also called informal balance, because it uses dissimilar shapes with unequal visual weight to create balance and attract the eye. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 6)

Asymmetrical balance is the big unknown. This type of balance is where it is important to know about the elements of design so that you can use them to adjust the visual weight of your design. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 9)

  • “A complex shape, even though smaller, has a stronger attraction too the eye of the viewer….Complexity of shape…can balance a much larger simple shape of the same value and color.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 9)
  • “A sharp contrast in color can give a small object more significance in a large space.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 9)

“Asymmetry appears casual and less planned…,” but it is actually more intricate and complicated to use than symmetrical balance, because attempting to balance dissimilar items involves more complex considerations and more subtle factors. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.85). The quilt we talked about in this segment is called Fishermen’s Widows by Anna Faustino, 2008. It is pictured on pg.114 of Adventures in Design.

  • Consider a star sampler quilt. You have asked your friends to make you star blocks in solid fabrics with a black background. They can make the star any size and any pattern. When you get the blocks back, they are all perfectly pieced, but different sizes and colors of solid fabric. You will have to arrange them in a pleasing way. What you are doing what you are doing when you arrange these star blocks is asymmetrical balance.

Structure is a helper concept to balance. You choose a structure to use within balance. There are four different major types of structure:

  • Focus Structure
  • Circular Structure
  • Triangular Structure
  • L Structure

Focus structure has to do with placing elements of a design in such a way that the eye of the viewer focuses on it. You create focus by establishing the difference between the featured shape and its setting. (Adventures in Design, pg.117)

  • “The rule of thirds is an easy way to find a focus range. divide your design into thirds horizontally and vertically. Four intersecting points will appear. Place your featured focus in the vicinity of the most appropriate intersecting point.” (Adventures in Design, pg. 117)

Circular structure uses a circular design “skeleton to move the eyes around the design in a clockwise manner.” (Adventures in Design, pg.118)

  • An example of circular structure is Denise Tallon Havlan’s quilt Unbridled Passion, 2006

The basis of your design, in a triangular structure is a triangle (Adventures in Design, pg.119)

  • An example of triangular structure is Melinda Bula’s quilt, Yellow Daisies. (Adventures in Design, pg.119)

In an L structure “the major design focus should be along one of the arms of the L.” The best placement in this kind of structure is to place the major focus close to the intersecting point of the L.” (Adventures in Design, pg.119)

  • An example of a quilt made using the L structure is Tidal Flat by Inge Mardal and Steen Hougs (Adventures in Design, pg.104)

There is also horizontal and vertical structure, which is also called horizontal and vertical balance.

Horizontal and Vertical structure (or balance) (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 4)

  • Horizontal balance is everything on either side of an imaginary line (center vertical axis) down the middle of your design from top to bottom. This might seem hard to understand, but think of a book. You read from left to write when you read English. The words on the pages on either side of the spine (acting as the center vertical axis) are horizontally balanced. This type of  balance is what we unconsciously assume when we look at a piece, because it is very common.
    • a person’s face
    • book
  • Vertical balance is the visual weight above and below an imaginary line drawn from right to left across the center of  the design. You are looking from top to bottom.
    • Because of gravity, we are used to seeing more weight at the bottom of a design (think of a mountain: the bottom is heavier than the top) (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.78)
    • Example: horizon line

Unbalanced Designs

  • leave viewer with a vague sense of unease (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed., pg. 77)


It is interesting how almost anything can inspire us to create a new design. Ruth McDowell was inspired to look into symmetry further when she was gallery sitting and ended up talking with a professor from a local Boston college who demanded to know why the designs only used 4 of the 17 types of Symmetry. (Symmetry, pg.8)

Crystallography is the science of the forms and structures of crystals (


Exercise #1:


  • 20-30 disparate items
  • large piece of paper or table on which to arrange your items
  • camera (if you have one)

A note on your items: go to your junk drawer or your Extra Everything closet or just walk around the house and grab things of all different sizes, shapes, colors, thicknesses and weights. Make sure you have a piece of crumpled junk mail. You can include a marble, a ball, a spoon, a whisk, a statute, a postcard, a remote control. The items should be easy for you to handle (don’t try and move your TV!)

Take your items (a variety of sizes shapes and colors) and arrange them on the piece of paper or table or other clear space. Try to arrange them in pleasing way.

If you have a camera, take a photo and look at the photo.

Exercise #2:

Using the same items from above (see supply list and notes above) and pretend your items are quilt blocks.

Rearrange your items and answer the questions below:

  • are you looking at the items differently?
  • did you remove any items?add any items?
  • tell us some of your thoughts while you were rearranging your items (you can leave out the part about how stupid I am and what a dumb exercise this is)

Take a photo and share it in Sandy’s Flickr group or on your blog. If you post a photo on your blog, put a link to your blog in the comments section below.

Balance Resources

Design Basics, 5th ed. by David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak, pg. 75-97
Elementary Crystallography: An Introduction to the Fundamental Geometric Features of Crystals by Martin Julian Buerger (1978)
Fearless Design by Lorraine Torrence, pg.17-23
The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d by Ann Johnston, pg.4-11
Pattern on Pattern by Ruth McDowell
Symmetry by Ruth McDowell

Thank you!

Author: Jaye

Quiltmaker who enjoys writing and frozen chocolate covered bananas.

2 thoughts on “Design Series: Balance”

  1. When I took a class on crystallography, the professor showed the class his collection of images that illustrated different symmetries. There were a couple of holes in his collection that I was able to fill because I had a calendar with photographs of quilts. I thought it was a bit odd that he didn’t recognize them as quilts until I told him what they were but then he was not quilter nor used to thinking of quilting and symmetry together. .

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