On The Golden Ratio

In design, it has always bothered me how a lot of people subscribe blindly to established design principles such as the Golden Ratio, as if it has some kind of magical properties, a component in some kind of design voodoo.

Noone ever bothers to ask WHY the Golden Ratio is so prevalent and why you see it everywhere in ancient art and architecture. A lot is made of the fact that it correlates with proportions found in nature and in the human body, as if those naturally occurring proportions were somehow magically influenced by this ancient, supposedly “supernatural” ratio.

In truth, it is of course the other way around: the Golden Ratio was defined in a way consistent with nature, because that is precisely what ancient philosophers and artists were trying to mirror in their endeavors of artistic expression – they were attempting to reflect the essence of nature and the human soul in dead matter.

So, what does this mean for design? Should you simply be content with calculating your design proportions so that they mirror those dictated by the Golden Ratio, hinging the success of your design on a belief in a supernatural aesthetic?

Of course not!

The conclusion is obvious: if you want to create a semblance of harmony, an impression that seems balanced and natural, you can safely assume that the Golden Ratio will get you there. It’s been established through aeons of design practice. However, balance and harmony and a natural appearance is not always automatically the goal of any given design. Sometimes, design needs to provoke, to challenge perceptions, to wake us up from our preconceived notions and generate some kind of response, some kind of action. This is what is called COMMUNICATION.

More specifically: bring proportions closer than what the Golden Ratio dictates, and you create RELATIONSHIPS in your design. Push proportions further apart and you create CONTRAST.

Uncritically adopting anything referred to as “universal rules” without questioning them is always a bad practice, in design and elsewhere. If you don’t stop to question what is supposedly “universal”, you will not understand those rules and you will most likely not apply them in a constructive, meaningful fashion.

Use the Golden Ratio dogmatically and all you create is a giant, standardized snooze fest which, I assure you, was not what the old Greeks and Romans intended.

 

2 comments

  1. Trevor Wolter

    Sounds to me like the Golden Ratio is a heuristic. It’s a method for solving a problem but there’s no guarantee that the answer is the right/best answer.Now I don’t have a background in design so my lexicon fails me here but to me contrast seems like a type of relationship so whether you have tighter or looser proportions, you still have relationships. Contrast is identified by polarity but I don’t know what the right word is to describe the opposite for proximity. The word harmony comes to mind but I think even in contrast there can be harmony.

  2. Jay Sojdelius

    My point is that the Golden Ratio is not used heuristically, it is far too often used dogmatically, without consideration of its purpose. In fact, in antiquity, it may even have been used in an almost occult manner, to evoke the human or natural spirit, but surely we have progressed since then? In composition theory, the way I see it at least, harmony and contrast are polar opposites. Too much harmony and you end up with identicals or design siblings, which is the most extreme way of indicating relationships. The downside to harmony is repetitiveness and dullness of composition. Too much contrast, on the other hand, and you end up with design elements that are unequal, the weakest form of relationship, which tends to upset harmony. This leads to very aggressive design. The Golden Ratio is a quick shortcut to attain an aesthetic equilibrium, but that is not always automatically the purpose of any given design. It’s just that designers mindlessly adhering to it leads to an overemphasis on balance; design that fails to leverage the full scope of design possibilities to communicate. When design truisms go from being guidelines to crutches, it is time to re-hink.

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