Science Explains The Enduring Appeal Of Bland, Symmetrical Layouts

The New Yorker might be onto something.

From a literary standpoint, the New Yorker is one of the most engaging publications out there. From a design standpoint, the print magazine seems to embrace the idea that less is more. It's common for full pages of text to flow through three symmetrical columns with few, if any, visual interruptions. Some might say there's a minimal elegance to the style, others might call it a little monotonous, but everyone would agree that it emphasizes words over their presentation.

Whether the magazine realizes it or not, these two hallmarks--engaging stories and symmetrical monotony--might not be as unconnected as they appear. New research suggests that textual symmetry can help people pay closer attention to the message in front of them. For a publication intent on conveying information, rather than on simply conveying visual entertainment, symmetrical design might serve as a sort of intellectual lubricant.


"In terms of reading a text and processing it intently, the New Yorker layout would definitely encourage that to a greater extent, based on my work, than more visually interesting kinds of layouts," psychologist Karen Gasper of Penn State University tells Co.Design.

Recently, Gasper and her graduate-assistant collaborator Brianna Middlewood ran a series of tests to determine whether a symmetrical layout influenced the way people processed certain texts. In the experiments, they showed participants different text designs--one symmetrical, one asymmetrical (below). Each time, participants responded the same way: They rated the symmetrical layouts as more appealing.

That didn't come as a surprise. Decades of evidence backs the visual appeal of symmetry. People are more attracted to symmetrical faces; infants and non-human animals prefer symmetry, too, which suggests that the concept has evolutionary roots. One reason we respond so well to symmetry could be because it simplifies cognitive processing. And vertical symmetry--like that of a magazine page--is even easier to detect than horizontal or diagonal types.

More interesting in the new work is the effect that symmetry seemed to have on the written material itself. In two initial tests, symmetrical appeal predicted how relevant participants thought the information was to their lives. This relevance, in turn, predicted a desire to learn more about the topic at hand. In other words, symmetry might not just be easy to process--it may also boost our interest in whatever we're reading.

This indirect power of symmetry came through most clearly in a final experiment conducted by Gasper and Middlewood. The researchers showed 146 test participants two arguments in favor of comprehensive college exams. One of the arguments made strong points (e.g. average starting salaries are higher for graduates), the other made weak points (e.g. job prospects "might" improve). Some of the arguments were presented in a symmetrical layout, and others were not.

Once again, symmetry seemed to impact the reading experience. Participants found the symmetrically arranged arguments more appealing and the appealing arguments more relevant--and they read those arguments with greater interest. When relevance was high, people agreed with the stronger points, but when relevance was low, they saw no difference between strong and weak points--perhaps because they just didn't care.

"The way the message is laid out--if the reader finds that appealing--can be a path to making the reader feel that whatever you're writing about is more relevant and important to them," says Gasper. The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

So the New Yorker (and other text-heavy publications) might have a method to their visual monotony. But the lesson for designers here might not be as simple as symmetry equals engagement. Just as there's good naked and bad naked, there's good symmetry and bad symmetry. A story with social importance printed in symmetrical vertical columns is good. That same arrangement posted online, making readers scroll up and down at the end of each column--not so good.

Then there's the material itself. Symmetry might enhance strong writing, but it's not a replacement for it. On the flipside, too much visual repetition, like too much cold medicine, may cause drowsiness; even the New Yorker breaks up long text pages with cartoons or doodles. Because sometimes it's nice to be deeply engaged, and sometimes it's nice to be pleasantly distracted.

[Image: Flower via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • I'm sorry, what? Experiment 1: Of two fake layouts that bear no discernible visual resemblance to anything ever seen in any real publication, readers self-reported a preference for one, which did not feature psychedelically distracting multi-point gradients, over the other, which did. From this we make a deduction about another property, symmetry, in respect of which the two entirely implausible and soul-destroyingly ugly layouts differed.

    Coming up: Do ring-tailed lemurs pay more attention to a tennis ball painted blue that makes a loud noise every 7 seconds, or a silent green football? The answer has much to tell us about the elasticity of ring-tailed lemur offspring.

    As a publication designer, I find this research less useful than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Maybe it helps psychologists somehow. Or lemurs.

  • I think this test should have honored good typography before putting any emphasis on the symmetrical or asymmetrical visual attributes of a layout. Look at the horrible text justification in those columns in the photo above.

  • I think this test should have honored good typography before putting any emphasis on the asymmetrical or symmetrical visual attributes of the layout. Look at the horrible text justification in the columns from the example above.