What is ‘Visual Tension’?

April 28th, 2018

Visual tension is created by arranging graphical elements, and manipulating their relationship to one another, to create a sense of imbalance. It’s about capturing the viewer’s attention by creating a sensation of cognitive conflict.

To demonstrate the idea, here’s an example I was given which I quite like: Place a glass of water in the centre of a table. Now push it a little further towards the edge. Now push it all the way to the edge, as close as it can go while still sitting on the table. Seeing the glass placed closer to the edge creates an impulse to push it back towards the centre where it is ‘safer’, more balanced.

Recreating this kind of impulse in a viewer of a graphic artwork is ‘visual tension’.

Asymmetry in graphical alignment is a simple and effective way of creating visual tension. So is arranging objects in a way that seemingly defies laws of physics, like gravity.

Consider the image below. This first example shows a stack of objects that, if they existed in the real world, wouldn’t balance in that way. Our brain maps the shapes to our physical world experiences, and expects these objects to fall. This is ‘visual tension’.

Visual Tension graphic

Consider this second image. Ironically, the text ‘Visual Tension’ actually nullifies some of the tension. As both the text and circle are pink, it creates a visual relationship between these elements. The text appears as a horizontal block in line with the circle. This creates a visual ‘platform’ of sorts, increasing the sense of balance.

Visual Tension graphic