So I had this problem pop up two times in two days and thought smarter people than myself have probably spend more time thinking about it:

Given several circles of different sizes, how do I distribute them so that in the end I have a result that is "aesthetically" pleasing?

Exhibit A - 4 Buttons on a panel:

4 Buttons on a panel

"Obviously" the larger button is too close to the upper edge and I feel like the distance between all buttons is not balanced.

Exhibit B - 1 Button, 1 LED on a footswitch:

1 Button, 1 LED on a footswitch

Here the button alone would be perfectly centered, but the small led disturbs the balance, does it? This is basically the 1D case of the problem.


Are there any tried and true "rules" on this? As you can guess I am not a designer by trade, so I am not looking for a "whatever looks good" answer, but for something like "put the bigger circle at the golden ratio and the smaller at the golden ratio of that".

Edit: After being told that there will be no answer if I am asking for hard rules, I am definitely willing to take answers to the question "how would you align those examples", but I am not sure if that is too broad for this platform?

  • 1
    Graphic design has no rules per see its more like guidelines anyway. But yeah to do optical alignment you align by eye and look at the result. Jut nudge the design down until it looks balanced. Optical balance is a really tricky beast.
    – joojaa
    Sep 15 '18 at 13:09
  • Ah damn :-) But if it's possible for text (see Latex and co), I guess it should be possible for simple circles?
    – fho
    Sep 15 '18 at 13:36
  • The question is: hey you graphic designer, listen! you who had to read the Art and Visual Perception by Rudolph Arnheim (508 pages) several times and even give exams about the book; you who have spent more than half a life dealing with shapes and spaces, you who know the tricks of Piet Mondrian or Miro to fit their shapes in a balanced way because you also have had to study it; you who take care of your work in detail so that no microbe sticks out of the right place, thing which you have learned by working experience... explain in a answer and in a few words: what your eyes know ! 😂🤣😂🤣
    – user120647
    Sep 15 '18 at 14:22
  • This is a very good question, but I doubt that you will find any true solution. As a graphic designer i deal with these dilemmas everyday and have been searching for the answer for years - I'm afraid it doesn't exist. It all depends on each situation. The way you choose to place the circles is an expression of your personal design style. If there were a geometrical answer, we wouldn't need graphic designers. The question is probably too broad to give a correct answer.
    – Wolff
    Sep 15 '18 at 16:18
  • Hi. Welcome to GDSE. The golden ratio is not a rule. It's a tool often used in compositions, however sometimes it can (or even should) be deliberately ignored for more effective results, depending on the situation. Sadly there is no formula for good design, or perhaps I should say fortunately - since designers would be out of a job, and would have been replaced by computers years ago if there was such a formula.
    – Billy Kerr
    Sep 15 '18 at 17:35

This is not a rule. I hesitate to use that word, since there is no such thing in graphic design. As I said in my comment, the golden ratio is not a rule, it's a tool to aid composition, and it doesn't have to be used. In fact sometimes it's better to ignore it completely. I rarely use it consciously. I find it too limiting.

Remember, design is also about creativity and being original. You don't really want to limit yourself to following some blind rule (like the rest of the sheeple), or the results would be insipid/boring. Nothing would ever surprise the viewer. It's like pop-music that follows the same rhythm and chord progressions - eventually we will want something else.

An analogy for the idea of balance in graphic design that I like to use is when you adjust the balance of the speakers on your hi-fi system, depending on where you are sitting in the room, so that they sound best to you. It's just as valid in design to rely upon what looks good to you, using your eyes and brain. Humans perceive things differently from machines, and I don't think some formula or rule can take that organic factor into account.

Adjusting images visually for the appearance of balance can be done by eye, and the use of some guides if necessary.

For example (see below), using shapes similar to those you posted, I might balance these something like this. This is obviously not the only way you could make a pleasing arrangement. There are other possibilities. Also remember that different people can have different tastes, so there will be differences on how people feel about or react to designs.

The thing to be aware of is that you will probably have to compensate optically for the size of the bigger circle, otherwise the group of circles won't look vertically centred, but too high, or too low. Of course, this assumes that being centred vertically is what you want.

enter image description here

You should note here that on the bottom example, I didn't really like the larger circle centred as I feel the design is too top heavy, and I decided to keep the two circles the same size as those in the upper example, to help fill the space. Of course, this is a personal preference, and might not suit your particular application of the design. My preference for this would pertain to graphic design, and possibly it might not be optimal for a product like a footswitch.

  • From your arguments this is as valid an answer as is possible :-) Thanks for the discussion and bonus points for the Gimp ;-)
    – fho
    Sep 15 '18 at 22:22
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    Oh and funny that you mention audio. I have some experience mixing music and there it's always "trust your ears" ... but I guess everybody has their own goto recipes that they must have at least subconsciously formalized in their heads.
    – fho
    Sep 15 '18 at 22:27

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