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The Golden Ratio and Design

by :: 13 October

I admit, without reservation, that I often lapse and travel to 'Geekdom'. At least a couple of times a year I find myself escaping into the uncouth world of numbers - real and imagined. Peruse the books stacked around my place and, amongst the volumes of fiction, collected essays, and design related works, there is a significant collection of science and math books.

Why not. Our experience tells us that the universe can be defined - to no small degree - by mathematics. Some of the most exciting and memorable tales in human history are defined by numbers. The story Pythagorus and what ensued after him reads like a great adventure. Newton has been dead nearly 350 years and we all know of his accomplishments. Einstein - well, Einstein made math sexy. And then there is Ted Williams hitting .400. The list is endless.

Art, and by extension graphic and web design, would seem to be the antithesis of the ordered world. Shouldn't art and artists run away at the very sight of numbers and math and equations? Unless you find math beautiful it seems difficult to relate art to it. Except there is a number that is persistent in its claim to the art world. It occurs in nature, architecture, design and even the stock market.

That number is Phi, the Golden Ratio. Phi is a bit shy, preferring to cast its spell in a stealthy manner. Even when we don't 'see' it, we know it's there. Have you ever looked at the Parthenon or the Pyramids in wonder at their balance and beauty. Ever wonder at the beauty of a nautilus but not quite been able to define it? Ever held a brochure or a sketch and and felt that it just looked 'right'? Blame Phi.

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man shows the Golden Ratio present in the human form.

The Golden Ratio is the ratio 1:1.618.... And, as you can tell, it is irrational - a number that cannot be written as a simple fraction. In other words, the decimal goes on forever. It figures, doesn't it. We work to quantify and order as much of the universe as we can and in the final analysis our sense of beauty and art - at least to some extent - can be defined by a number that can only be approximated.

How does it work? I'll keep it simple and basic. In design or art you take the length of one side of the piece you are designing and divide it by Phi (1.618). For instance, let's say it's a brochure or handout that is being designed and it is 8 inches tall. How wide should it be? 8 divided by 1.618 = 4.944 inches. Approximately 8 x 5. But what about the design itself? Say you divide the page with content down the left and an image on the right and the piece is oriented vertically (8 inches tall and 5 inches wide). The vertical sections should be 2 inches and 3 inches wide(4.944 divided by 1.618).

The reason this is so important is that when we view a brochure, website, or other design that adheres to the Golden Ratio it looks 'right' to our eye. The ratio is so prevalent in nature that we notice it without actually realizing it's there, a subliminal appeal that borders on comfort.

The art world is replete with examples of the Golden Ratio. From Leonardo Da Vinci to Salvador Dali, Phi has hidden itself in some of the greatest works of art humankind has produced. And Phi reveals itself in nature in too many ways to count - the proportions of a dolphin, the wings of a moth, the human face, a spiral galaxy, and in a stalk of wheat, to name a few.

A great deal of the beauty we find in our universe is the slave of an irrational and ever-present mistress. In today's vernacular, everywhere you go, there she is. In spite of the universal instance on order and rationality, it's an irrational number that grabs our attention and holds it.


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