Visual Weight 101: How to Balance Any Room

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Why does this room feel so balanced? The visually heavy concrete wall is balanced by airy chairs and lightweight, interestingly arranged art. Image:

Think about the spaces you love. Whether’s it a room in your own home or apartment, or something you fawned over on Pinterest, the room probably has a sense of balance. When your eye scans it, you can follow a natural flow. You pick out pieces that are anchoring the space and others that give it a feeling of openness.

Now think about spaces you hate, like the waiting room at the doctor’s office or the DMV. Sure, the poor lighting and stark decor don’t do these spaces any favors. But they also feel heavy and, put simply, blah.

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You want to create a space that wows and isn’t at all reminiscent of the DMV. Fortunately, visual weight can help. Let’s take a look at this interior design tool.

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When you want to open up a space, choose visually lightweight pieces, like those elevated on slender legs. Image: ParvinMaharramov/Shutterstock

What is visual weight, exactly?

Visual weight relates to the way an object attracts and interacts with our eye. In short, visual weight is how much your eye thinks a piece weighs. In most cases, this is pretty well tied to its actual weight. Solid wood items look visually heavy and are, in fact, heavy themselves. But visual weight and actual weight don’t always go hand in hand. Take, for example, a couch. If you put it on low, block legs or no legs at all, it will look very visually heavy. If, however, you mount it on taller hairpin legs, you can significantly reduce its visual weight.

This is a big part of why furniture is so important in a room. As some of the largest – if not the largest – pieces in a room, furniture is going to define the visual weight of the space. Too many sturdy, heavy pieces will make the room feel weighed down. Too many lightweight pieces that allow the eye through (like pieces in acrylic or with thin wire framing) and can make the space feel unestablished.

What gives an item its visual weight?

You might be wondering how to determine the visual weight of an item. Here are a few factors that affect visual weight:

  • Size: The larger an item is, the more visually heavy it will appear.
  • Shape: Shapes we’re used to, like squares and rectangles, usually appear heavier than irregular shapes with curves or unexpected angles.
  • Proximity: A large, heavy-looking item can be made to appear lighter by surrounding it with other objects. When standing alone, its visual weight will be more apparent.
  • Color: Lighter items generally appear less heavy than darker ones of the same size and shape.
  • Texture/Depth: Texture that adds a lot of shadow can make an object seem visually heavier. Similarly, items with more depth look heavier. For example, a deep bookshelf will carry more visual weight than a shallow one of the same size and shape.
  • Grounding: Items that are close to the ground appear heavier than those that are elevated and allow some light underneath them, like furniture on legs.
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The heavy visual weight of the black cabinet is balanced by dining chairs on slender legs and a table in light-colored wood. Image: Iphann/Twenty20

Why is visual weight important?

We’re not just teaching you about visual weight so you can impress your friends at your next dinner party. Visual weight is key because it’s a huge part of achieving visual balance. Let’s go back to the rooms you thought about earlier, some you loved and some you hated. A big part of the reason we hate waiting rooms is because they’re filled with low, stocky chairs. There is usually very little to balance out that room (kudos to the people who at least put a potted plant in the corner). The result is a space that feels heavy and tired, where spending time makes you feel heavy and tired.

Now think about the rooms you love. They most likely have a good balance of visually heavy and visually light pieces, with plenty of space to let the eye travel between them. Interior designers think about visual weight when putting rooms together so the eye can scan the space comfortably, easily finding anchor pieces while getting relief from items with less visual weight.

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In a wide, low room, the sizable lighting fixture, couch and fireplace serve as visual anchors. Image:

How do I use visual weight in my interior design?

As with so much of interior design, using visual weight to your advantage is all about finding balance. Basically, being aware of an individual object’s perceived weight can help you steer clear of issues like stocking a room with too much heavy furniture, making it feel cramped or forgetting to add a visual anchor.

When adding pieces to your room or rearranging the space, take into account the visual weight. Imagine your room is on a fulcrum. You don’t want to crowd all your visually heavy items to one side. Distribute them throughout the room and break them up with visually light items and open space. Balancing your room is the key to creating a space with good design. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into this concept, check out our article on how best to achieve balance in interior design.

Even if you’ve never heard the term “visual weight” before today, you probably already had a sense that it was important. Did this guide help you? Will you make any changes to your home now that you’ve learned more? Let us know in the comments!