The concept of balance is an integral part of design as it plays a major role in a great number of practices ranging from the structural integrity of our surroundings, to obscurities such as dance and sculpture. Balance is also a critical concept in our evolved and designed lives, it enables us to move around, enables us to be still, enables us to make decisions and it enables us to continuously recreate the world that we live in.
Balance has several meanings, all of which can be related in some way to the world of design. The first definition, “An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”, describes physical balance and is relevant to a large number of things ranging from the movement of humans to the construction and stability of a standard dining room chair. Despite appearing simple to the naked eye, the act of standing and remaining still involves a huge number of factors, such as taking into account and then counteracting the effects of gravity, the continuous readjustments of structure and the incessant oscillating of our muscular system. In the same sense, although a chair is a designed, non-living object, it has been made by taking into account the physics of gravity and the legs have been designed with the final aim of being able to balance and support not only the seat and the chair back, but the human sitting on it as well.
Within art, balance is described as the Harmony of design and proportion, which can mean any number of things but mainly that with any finished piece; there must be both the premeditated appearance of the object itself but also an articulated estimation of the world in which the object will belong. With this type of balance, the aim is not to gain equilibrium, but to distort and recreate the idea of the equilibrium until you are left with something that is both unique and highly personalised. Balance within art also describes the technique used by fine artists where everything within a composition looks as if it is in its right place and there is no particular aspect that detracts attention from another. However, whilst this increases the overall unity, it decreases variety and most importantly, interest. This visual side of balance is still very much interlinked with our own physical sense and understanding of the concept. This can be demonstrated by various optical illusions as, although they are just 2D images, they can be composed in such a way that the viewer can actually become disorientated and unbalanced. This effect can be achieved by a number of techniques ranging from simple colour manipulation to the reconstruction of the objects set order. This works because we have an automatic expectation of how things should appear and when this expectation is not met, our visual receptor struggles to adapt to the new situation. This would fall more under the category of psychological unbalance rather than physical unbalance.
Balance can also represent the harmony often found within social groupings like friends and family, where competing interests such as politics or artistic opinions differ. The perfect balance within such social groupings would be when these differing theories and beliefs meet, a debate ensues and without any need for an ultimatum, each individual recognises the others right to freedom of thought and an agreement of disagreement is met. One example of such an occasion would be the story of Arthurs Knights and the round table, an event with such significance in today’s culture that it even has its own phrase, to roundtable something is to present an idea and give every involved party an equal chance to present their own thoughts and the final outcome will be a combination of interests. This can also be seen in UK politics through collective responsibility, when the Prime Minister (first among equals) and the cabinet will decide on something as a group and take an equal share of responsibility for the outcome, whatever it may be.
Within this dissertation, I will be focusing on the passive and active attributes of balance and the laws of physics that each and every designer must adhere to. Passive balance describes objects such as a chair or a table, objects that are designed and ultimately non-living. Such objects only have one basin of attraction, ie. gravity, and whilst it is possible to find and maintain the point of equilibrium, once they start leaning in one direction and exceed the boundary of the basin, they will continue to do so until they meet the resistance of the floor. ‘Active’ balance describes the balance of humans and due to us being both self-aware and conscious of our surroundings; we gain a second basin of attraction. The first is gravity; the second is the actual knowledge of unbalance as it happens and also the instinctive bodily response to right oneself.
When looking at non-living objects like furniture or even a stone or a rock, the fact that these objects are standing upright completely unaided is often overlooked. For example, a rock or a stone in the ground is an inanimate object and has only one centre of gravity and unlike living beings; it cannot be changed or adapted. However, when a stone is at rest on the ground, it is still influenced by the same laws of physics as living beings are but as there is no internal life source controlling its upright position, its structural manipulation relies completely on external forces such as gravity, exceeding the boundaries of its own centre of gravity and mankind. Although humans are still affected by external forces in the same way, just the fact that we are able to consciously resist such forces sets us apart by extending, the power and impact of the world around us.
We take balance of inanimate objects for granted as there is no active and recurring input of energy needed or used to maintain the composition like there is with evolved beings such as humans. A chair is a designed object, nothing more. In some sense, a chair is merely an extension of our own sense of balance and belonging within the world, as it has been designed in accordance with both the laws of physics and our own basic requirements. Because the chair is not a living being, it has no need for stability or balance. This raises the query; is it only when a living being connects physically with the piece of furniture that it actually becomes more than a lifeless object? Following on from this, there have been recent developments in the world of technological design that have been combining the idea of the chair with the human characteristic of self-righting oneself. One example is the ‘Self-healing chair’ created by Italian designer Raffaello D’Andrea. In the design of a normal dining room chair, it is created with the sole function of being able to fix itself, should it br eak without the assistance of a human counterpart. A quote found on the designers website describes the chair perfectly, “With its “brain” in its seat, the chair collapses into a dishevelled, disconnected heap; its legs then slowly find each corner of the base, connect back together and eventually, the chair stands upright.” The chair uses 14 motors, two gearboxes and many other parts including a highly sophisticated algorithm (recursive computational procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps) to know how to find its component pieces and build itself back up. When asked if the chair was the next breakthrough in artificial intelligence D’Andrea replied “It has no utilitarian value, it is an art piece.” Although it may not hold any clear-cut usable function, it definitely represents a stepping stone on the way to designing and creating inanimate objects with humanistic physiognomies.
The human body is a complex dynamical system that is never motionless. In an article from Physics Today, I learnt that even when we stand still, our bodies are oscillating at low amplitude much like the low bass of a continuously beating drum. It is through this consistent yet largely unnoticed bodily movement that we evolved to be able to stand upright. When we are stood vertically still, the instinctive response of the human body is fairly straight-forward meaning that we can uphold this position for an extended length of time but as soon as we start to lean away from the centre of gravity, our bodily responses get a lot more complicated with the act of counterbalance.
As simple as it may seem, maintaining an upright stance is a complex process involving many sensory systems. It involves the interpretation of different signals of the body, processing these signals and then sending the appropriate control signal to activate the muscles in order to stabilize the body. Standing upright, an adult human’s centre of gravity is located roughly at the centre of their torso, an estimated 55% of their total height. The line of gravity is an imaginary vertical line that extends upward and downward from an object’s centre of gravity and this continuously changes with the re-positioning of our bodies throughout the day. It is even possible for the line of gravity to be at a point outside of the body, for example when we bend over into an inverted U position with our arms stretched down to the floor, it is roughly located in the free space below the stomach.
In the same way that balance is needed for maintaining a motionless stance, balance is also needed for movement. Or rather, the lack of balance is needed. As all tetrapod’s, the human bone structure consists of a rigid internal skeleton with four limbs at each ‘corner’ meaning that we are extremely stable but also that every step we take is done so through the act of purposefully unbalancing ourselves and falling before righting ourselves once again with our other foot. Our movement is in reality a never-ending series of falling and balancing, falling and balancing. From looking at evolution, one can see that the human skeleton is highly sophisticated as we have learnt how to walk on two legs, whereas early tetrapod’s walked on four legs and had to ‘fall’ with two limbs at every step.
This general understanding of balance is constantly being translated into design. For example, the Gravity Balans chair by Peter Opsvik holds a lot of ground in physics and simply by incorporating a certain degree of scientific research into the construction of this furniture piece, Opsvik has succeeded in creating a chair that is “not just a chair, but a way of life”. Aesthetically, the Gravity Balans chair looks comfy yet also appears to be quite dangerous to sit on, however it has been manufactured in such a way that no matter how one sits on it, it is constantly at a state of equilibrium and tipping it over would require a conscious effort to do so. His main aim was to create an object primarily for rest, but that could also be used for a multitude of other activities throughout the working day. The majority of Opsvik’s furniture designs are aimed at incorporating comfort into everyday objects but they also showcase and problem-solve the recent developments in terms of what is deemed to be correct posture. The rocking motion allows the manipulation of body positioning ensuring that joints are always in motion and don’t get the chance to lock or become sore.
Balance within a composition, whether 2D or 3D can be classified as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. A symmetrical composition being one that contains a mirror image, where everything is in balance and no part attracts or detracts attention from itself or any of the others. This can also be described as reaching equilibrium and although it increases the overall unity, it can decrease variety and most importantly, interest. One example would be the Scherenschnitte, a symmetrical 2D design from Germany depicting stories and landscapes. Although the content and the underlying context is interesting, there is nothing about the piece itself that grabs the attention of the viewer or at least, nothing that would hold it for longer than a moment. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing because art is ultimately created for the artist and within art there are no set guidelines or rules. The only restriction is, to be publically successful it’s the job of the artist or designer to find the perfect balance between the contextual side of the piece and the visually engaging side.
Whilst balance is usually a desirable characteristic of a composition, there are times when it is necessary to deliberately throw the balance off in order to call more attention to another aspect of the piece. One example of this is the Balance chair by Yoon-Hee Kim which is visually asymmetrical but this self-contrast serves to add to the piece and attracts the eye. Not only is the chair aesthetically stimulating but it also incorporates an air of fun and games to the world of furniture as the seat rests on a pivot and the user is required to maintain perfect balance in order to remain seated. Yoon-Hee Kim created this seat with the intention of solving the problem of bad posture, his theory being that instead of merely telling people that sitting still for extended periods of time is bad for their back, she would create a seat that wouldn’t allow the user to sit still at all.
Another pivot-based design is the See-Saw bookshelf by BCXSY which is, not surprisingly, a bookshelf in the shape of a children’s see-saw. On the BCXSY website, the furniture piece is advertised with a note from the designer: “Every book tells its own story. Every book has its own weight. By playing with balance, the See-Saw bookshelf visualizes the breadth of our home libraries.” Finding a design that is more in tune with the general theme of balance would be hard and I love the general theme of this bookshelf as it brings an air of child-like fun to the world of literature and book storage. It almost begs you to keep buying books just so you have an even wider breadth of ideas to play with and balances to try out. As an actual piece of furniture it combines playfulness with good design structure as it is made from thick walnut wood with powder-coated steel book-holds set at asymmetrical intervals along the plank ensuring a long shelf life (excuse the pun).
Another ingenious design centred on balance is the Equilibrium bookcase by Malagana. With its cantilevered modules stacked upon each other at a single angled point, the design piece immediately catches the eye and would add an interesting and amusing element to any front room. Quite possibly the most interesting element to this piece of furniture is the fact that it is brain-teasingly hard to figure out how it is all held together. For something that looks so delicate, the Equilibrium bookcase can hold an astounding 120 Lbs. of weight and the tilted formulation of each section completely eliminates the need for bookends. Judging from its name, it is an easy conclusion to make that the bookshelf somehow incorporates equilibrium into the design but how it transcends from being a temporary physical arrangement into a permanent and more important, functional structure is a mystery.
In conclusion, balance is and always will be an integral part of design and both its flexibility and its restrictions give designers the inspiration and motivation needed to continue to explore the possibilities of the world at large. The laws of physics may impart boundaries but they are far from definite and there is always room for distortion. Whether in the form of furniture, robotics or products, the world of design can only expand and improve in parallel to our own continued evolution. It is clear that not only do we create furniture pieces for the use of humans; we also create them in the likeness of humans. In a way, it is the science behind the design that is most interesting and it is the ability to push and distort the boundaries of physical design in new and innovative ways that will ultimately set one designer apart from the rest.