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One of the best ways to understand the last of my five
principles of design -- proportion -- is to study nature. When you look across a
landscape, you don’t typically see one tree that is precisely one half as high
as another… or one cloud that is one quarter the size of the next one… or stars
and galaxies that are equidistant from each other. Nature cares little about such obvious mathematical relationships and good design
follows the examples of nature in this regard.
That is not to say that nature isn’t mathematical. The
elements of nature -- clouds, plants, geographical features, animals, stars, galaxies,
etc., do have pleasing proportions and the proportional relationships are based
on what mathematicians call “irrational” mathematics.
There is a “divine proportion”
that occurs frequently and abundantly in nature. It is generally referred to as
the “golden ratio.”
When a line is divided by the golden ratio (Phi -- the
“irrational” number 1.6180339887...), the resulting proportions are
visually pleasing. The Pythagoreans (circa 500 BC) believed this to be
The history of the golden ratio goes back at least to 500
BC. [If you create a sequence of numbers (starting with 0, 1) by adding
the last two numbers in the sequence together you will have what is
called the Fibonacci sequence -- 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so forth.
As you divide each resulting number into the previous number, the
result resolves into the golden ratio.] But, as recently as 1854, Adolf
Zeising discovered that the branches along
stems of plants and the veins in leaves were expressions of the golden
ratio -- so are the dimensions of the human body, other skeletal
forms, sunflower florets, seashells such as the Nautilus (a Fibbonacci
spiral). and countless other occurences in nature ranging from the
logarithmic spirals of hurricanes and galaxies (completely unrelated
phenonoma) to the flight pattern of a falcon diving on its prey.
When the length of a line is divided by the golden ratio (rounded
to 1.62), and split into segments based on the resulting length, the length
of the shorter segment is to the longer segment what the length of the longer
segment is to the entire length of the line.
used this “divine proportion” to design paintings, sculpture and architecture.
It is believed to have been used in works ranging from the Mona Lisa to the Parthenon
(and the great pyramids). The Parthenon is considered to be the finest example
of proportion in the history of architecture.
In art school, one of the layout styles I learned about is
called the Mondrian layout. It is named after the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian
(1872-1944) who is considered to be the father of advertising design. He used grids extensively… with the grids following the tenets of the golden ratio or divine
proportion. In the Mondrian tradition, contemporary graphic designers often use
the “rule of thirds” to create layout grids which result in these universally
This is achieved by first dividing your layout dimensions
into thirds, and then to divide the top most resulting dimension by thirds
dividing each column in halves. This grid is then used as a guide in
determing the placement of the elements of design -- according, of
course, to the principles of design that I have been discussing in this
Speaking of the other principles, proportion is closely related to balance and emphasis… and sequence. Different proportions of visual to copy,
for example, can send uniquely different messages, even when using identical elements of design. The
use of proper proportion results in unequal dimensions -- without
obvious mathematical relationships -- which help to create a
lively, interesting and pleasing design.
ratio is seen in musical compositions from Bartok' to Bach, Beethoven
and Mozart. Stradivari used the golden ratio for the placement of the
f-holes in his famous violins. On the piano, there are 13 musical notes
separating each octave of 8 notes (the golden ratio). The keys of a
piano also consist of the golden ratio -- a scale of 13 keys, 8 white,
5 black split into groups of 3 and 2.
ubiquitious golden ratio is used in abundance -- at least in its
approximate form. If you use the "a" and "b" lengths from the example
above, to create a rectangle, you will have what is referred to as the
"golden oblong" -- considered to be the perfect rectangle. Visa® and
Mastercard® aspect ratios are close approximations,
as are the aspect ratios of some popular video screens… including
cinematic aspect ratios
(1920 x 1200 and 720 x 480).
If you go back to my previous blogs you will
find that I have referred to Bill Bernback's "Think Small" ad numerous
times. It is a remarkable example of practically everything I have
discussed. In the great Mondrian tradition, it is not too surprising to
find that Bernback also used the rule of thirds when creating what is
considered to be the most divine ad of all time.
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