From Wabi-Sabi to Golden Mean
August 03, 2005
Earlier I was speaking about how we can improve communication designs by looking in unexpected places. For example, by examining Wabi-Sabi concepts and sensibilities to influence our approach with designing visuals. Wabi-Sabi and Zen aesthetics are rooted in the natural world. The "design" of the natural world has a lot to teach us about symmetry, balance, beauty, and grace. Are these words you use to critique your presentation visuals — symmetry, balance, beauty, and grace?
We are drawn naturally to visuals that exhibit symmetry, balance, and beauty in proportion. Artists and designers have for centuries emulated a proportion called the "Golden Mean" or "Golden Ratio" found in nature into their works. The golden ratio is a proportion defined by the number Phi (1.618033988...). Kiberly Elam points out in her book, Geometry of Design, that "...use of the golden section rectangle, with a proportion of 1:1.618, is documented in the architecture of Stonehenge built in the 20th - 16th centuries B.C." There is evidence as well that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians applied the principle, and of course, much has been made of Renaissance artists and architects who employed the golden ratio in much of their work. Goldennumber.net offers some history on the golden mean.
Kimberly points out at least two studies in the last 150 years or so which concluded that, given a choice, people have a significant preference for man-made objects which have proportions closest to the 5:8 ratio golden section. There is some research recently which says people prefer TVs with aspect ratios approaching the golden mean as well. A quick look at the SONY 40" flat panel shows that it has an aspect ratio or 16:9 which is not the golden mean but falls into the segment of preferred proportions. While the screen itself is not exactly a 1:1.618 rectangle, the bevels around the screen do form a golden rectangle.
We see strong golden section preferences in the natural world, of course. The sunflower, for example, consists of 21 spirals moving clockwise and 34 spirals moving counterclockwise. This 21:34 ratio is 1:1.619, very close to the golden section. Maybe the reason we are so intrigued by the things in the natural environment such as flowers, shells, fish, etc. is because of the preference we have, at least subconsciously, for shapes that have golden mean proportions.
Below, using a Bayen painting from the 12th century Japan, I applied golden section grids over the image to see what would happen. I did this by multiplying the width of the image (line A) by 0.618, which gives me line (B) and (C). Here we can see that (A) is 1.618 times (B) and (B) is 1.618 times (C). To be begin a grid, I drew a line down the page where the lines (B) and (C) intersect.
Now, I do not know if this painting uses the golden section of not. But what is interesting about this painting is that the sight line of the fishing line (including that which we imagine under the water), pole, fisherman and boat roughly run along a line that is .618 times the length of the entire image. The image is powerful and we can feel the sabi of the fisherman and the vastness of the ocean. If the subject were placed exactly center would we still get an appreciation of the waves gently carrying the boat from left to right?
Attempting to design visuals according to the golden mean proportions is impractical in most cases perhaps for us. However, the "rule of thirds" which is derived from the golden mean, is a basic design technique that can add symmetry, beauty, and professionalism to your visuals. The rule of thirds — which is not a "rule" at all — is something you can use. Photographers, for example, use the rule of thirds when framing their shots.
Next, then, we will look at using the rule of thirds in your visuals. In the mean time, please explore the world of Phi and the Fibonacci series. Once you understand the golden ratio you will begin to notice it everywhere.
GoldenNumbers.net has an excellent explanation of Phi and the Golden Mean. It goes pretty deep yet is written in plain English and is quite easy to understand.
There are a lot of books which explore the Golden Mean and beyond. I purchased the Geometry of Design a couple of years ago and highly recommend it.