Achieving a sense of unity and variety is key to a successful design. In fact the common idea of “harmony” in a design comes from the correct balance of unity and variety. Too much unity and the design can look boring. Too much variety and the design can look scattered and incoherent. A design that is both varied and unified is engaging and will communicate well.
To achieve unity in a design consider using repeated shapes, colors, sizes, lines, points. To achieve variety simply vary those elements in one way or another. Here are some examples of designs that lack either unity or variety and some possible solutions.
This rather lackluster design contains three shapes and four colors. There is no relationship between the shapes or the colors. This is a good example of a design that has too much variety and not enough unity.
The design solutions above use the same shapes as in the example to the left. They are successful because they create associations between the shapes by repeating them, altering their sizes and placing them so they relate to each other. The new colors solidify the relationships and create meanings for the designs.
While good designs usually balance unity and variety, it’s common to tip the design one way or the other depending one what needs to be communicated.
A design with an emphasis on unity communicates conformity, community, cooperation, and rigidity.
A design with an emphasis on variety communicates difference, individuality, openness, fluidity, chaos and dynamism.
This ordinary pattern has unity through the repetition of form (the shapes) and color, yet it has no variety and lacks visual interest.
The design solutions above use the same shapes to create interesting patterns with both variety and unity. On the left anomalies in the pattern create visual interest and points of focus. On the right transparency and size create an engaging alternative to a simple pattern. In both cases the pattern extends beyond the edge of the frame (open format cropping) and implies that it goes on forever.
This simple video shows how a geometric pattern can be broken down into an organic design. The final result is a design with perfect balance of unity and variety.
Illustrations and essay by Louisa Bufardeci.