About Design Principle 8: The Golden Ratio, the Perfect Proportion
Before 500 B.C., all numbers were either whole or rational. The Pythagoreans worshiped this simplicity, and believed the cosmos was structured so exactly. Then the Golden Ratio (1.618…) was discovered, and found to be irrational. That a number could not be expressed as a ratio of two integers, or a terminating or repeating decimal was quite the shock. This foundation-rocking discovery brought on feasts, suicides, animal sacrifices, thought problems and paradoxes – it was a very big deal. Even today the Golden Ratio inspires amazement and wild theory (or at least a plot device in the Da Vinci Code).
Numerists see the ratio everywhere: in the spiral of the nautilus, the growth pattern of leaves on a branch and the petals of flowers, and in the proportions of the human body. The Virtuvian Man is based on this ideal. The plastic surgeon Dr. Marquardt created a “beauty mask” with Phi (another name for the Golden Ratio), and the curl of a finger is supposed to represent this fantastical ratio. Unfortunately, measurements of individual samples refute the notion that nature closely adheres to strict ratios in its proportions or growth patterns. However, as the Virtuvian Man illustrates, designers and artists love using the Golden Ratio. The Acropolis, a Stradivarius and an iPod are in golden proportion, along with countless industrial and artistic designs.
What is the Ratio?
The Golden Ratio can be expressed many ways. In a line segment, as in the picture, AB divided by BC is the ratio and written as Phi or Φ. The inverse, BC divided AB is considered an expression of the Golden Ratio as well. The Golden Ratio is also the relationship between the entire line segment and its longest segment, AC divided by AB. And it is because of this internal consistency in ratios that it is called the Golden Ratio.
To create a Golden Rectangle, AB is the width and BC becomes the height. If you place a line in the rectangle to form a square, the rectangle that is also created will be a Golden Rectangle. You can keep repeating that process infinitely. If you draw an arc through the squares, you create a Golden Spiral.
What Can You Do With the Golden Ratio?
Create user friendly and visually pleasing items. The Golden Rectangle is a friendly shape. A standard deck of playing cards fits comfortably in the hand; the width divided by height is Phi. An Eames chair width divided by height will be Phi as well. Whether it’s tradition or an intrinsic preference, objects designed to conform to the Golden Ratio appear well-proportioned and functional. But creating a Golden Rectangle should not be the driving design consideration, there are many other elements that should be considered.
For instance, when we design a brochure, we do not force the design into a Golden Rectangle. The amount of copy, images, mailing dimensions, how many fit on 28 x 40 printer rolls, all of these take precedence… these are the design considerations we work out for every project – the Golden Rectangle is rarely indicated.
But considering shapes and proportions like the Golden Ratio is part of our training and is expressed in our work. The placement of text in relation to art on page, the crop of a photo, the choice of model, these elements might not be directly influenced by a particular ratio, but our eyes are trained to tell us what looks right. And often what looks right is based on the study of this golden proportion.
Images are from Wikimedia and shared under the Creative Commons license.