The Persistent Golden Ratio

Championed for centuries as an example of divine expression in nature and art, the golden ratio has its skeptics as well. In the highly subjective world of design, can a mathematically specific ratio be credited with a greater power of attraction? We tend to think definitely, and Orange County branding agencies looking to add power to their work should consider incorporating it in their work.

One of the most powerful images that we can come across is that of the human face. As anyone who watched this TV spot knows, seeing face after face gives a real emotional response that can be more powerful than any political message.

But why is that? What ads like this suggest is that our traditional sense of beauty is linked to a degree to the golden ratio, one of the oldest and most pervasive of design concepts. In the lost classic sense, the golden ratio has come to represent divine creation, with the creation of man, and the structure of the human face being the clearest example.

From the human face to the nautilus shell, and countless other natural and man-made examples, there is an undeniable power to the ratio, which, is mathematically represented as 1.618. If you have no idea how to take a random number and turn it into a design, don’t worry—part of the ratio’s power is that it can be internalized and used naturally, without conscious thought.

Train yourself.

American visual artist Richard Serra described the connection between sight and drawing: “Your eye is a muscle. You have to keep it in shape and the more you draw, the more you see.” He also explained that the truth goes the other way: if you want to learn to draw, you must first learn how to see. As a designer, becoming sensitive to patterns such as the golden ratio is essential to benefitting from these strong, essential ideas into your own work. It’s like learning a language, really. Over time as you immerse yourself in visual arts, you begin to notice, and eventually produce these concepts and patterns yourself.

What about individuality?

Any number of hotshot individualist designers will bristle at the idea that they need to adhere to some prescribed rules for their work. Is there no room for creativity and individuality? Is it ugly or wrong to use a ratio of, say, 1.7? Of course not. The language of creativity is broad and flexible enough to allow for almost anything. Just as with spoken language, we learn the rules, then we speak with our own style. All will agree, though, that there are limits. And likewise, there are “sweet spots” that tend to resonate with more people. The golden ratio is that sweet spot.

Still, as this Fast Company article suggests, a growing body of contemporary designers express skepticism at the idea of the golden ratio being somehow more powerful than other…less golden…ratios. They point to the lack of scientific evidence that people prefer golden ratio over any other rectangle. Still, I find efforts to discredit the golden 1.618 unnecessarily cynical. It’s just as difficult, if not more so, to prove that people don’t react to a version of the golden ratio. In the subjective realms of taste, it may be too much to ask for science to make objective claims in either direction. Proving or disproving the power of the ratio, especially in individual works, may be an endeavor as infinitely elusive as the center of that nautilus shell that has come to represent it. But such is always the way with abstract concepts: it’s not a rule—but rather a powerful ideal to be worked toward.

Is that ratio 1.6 or 1.7?

Did they mean to use the golden ratio, or was it just a coincidence?

Rather than getting hung up on a string of questions, I recommend opening yourself up to the possibility and potential of the golden ratio as a design concept—not as dogma, but as natural source of power. Where does that leave the next design job your Orange County branding agency does for you? Let’s just say that if you want to bend the rules, you’d do well to make sure you have a sense of what those rules are.

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