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There's a common mathematical ratio found in nature that can be used to create pleasing, natural looking compositions in your design work. We call it the Golden Ratio, although it's also known as the Golden Mean, The Golden Section, or the Greek letter phi. Whether you're an illustrator, art director or graphic designer, it's well worth considering the Golden Ratio on any project.

  • The designer's guide to grid theory

In this article, we'll explain what it is, how you can use it, and point to some great resources for further inspiration and study…

What is the Golden Ratio?

Closely related to the Fibonacci Sequence (which you may remember from either your school mathematics lessons or Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code), the Golden Ratio describes the perfectly symmetrical relationship between two proportions.

Approximately equal to a 1:1.61 ratio, the Golden Ratio can be illustrated using a Golden Rectangle: a large rectangle consisting of a square (with sides equal in length to the shortest length of the rectangle) and a smaller rectangle.

Golden Ratio

The side lengths of a Golden Rectangle are in the Golden Ratio

If you remove this square from the rectangle, you'll be left with another, smaller Golden Rectangle. This could continue infinitely, like Fibonacci numbers – which work in reverse. (Adding a square equal to the length of the longest side of the rectangle gets you increasingly closer to a Golden Rectangle and the Golden Ratio.)

Golden Ratio: diagram

In the Fibonacci Sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …) each term is the sum of the previous two, and the ratio becomes increasingly closer to the Golden Ratio

Golden Ratio

Plotting the relationships in scale provides us with a spiral that can be seen in nature

Golden Ratio in use

It's believed that the Golden Ratio has been in use for at least 4,000 years in human art and design. However, it may be even longer than that – some people argue that the Ancient Egyptians used the principle to build the pyramids.

In more contemporary times, the Golden Ratio can be observed in music, art, and design all around you. By applying a similar working methodology you can bring the same design sensibilities to your own work. Let's take a look at a couple of examples to inspire you.

Greek architecture

Golden Ratio

Ancient Greek architecture uses the Golden Ratio to determine pleasing dimensions

Ancient Greek architecture used the Golden Ratio to determine pleasing dimensional relationships between the width of a building and its height, the size of the portico and even the position of the columns supporting the structure.

The final result is a building that feels entirely in proportion. The neo-classical architecture movement reused these principles too.

The Last Supper

Golden Ratio

Leonardo da Vinci made extensive use of the Golden Ratio

Leonardo da Vinci, like many other artists throughout the ages, made extensive use of the Golden Ratio to create pleasing compositions.

In The Last Supper, the figures are arranged in the lower two thirds (the larger of the two parts of the Golden Ratio), and the position of Jesus is perfectly plotted by arranging golden rectangles across the canvas.

Nature

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There are also numerous examples of the Golden Ratio in nature – you can observe it all around you. Flowers, sea shells, pineapples and even honeycombs all exhibit the same principle ratio in their makeup.

Next page: how to construct a Golden Ratio rectangle

Creating a Golden Rectangle is pretty straightforward, and starts with a basic square. Follow the steps below to create your own Golden Ratio:

01. Draw a square

Golden Ratio

This will form the length of the ‘short side’ of the rectangle.

02. Divide the square

Golden Ratio

Divide your square in half with a vertical line, leaving you with two rectangles.

03. Draw a diagonal line

Golden Ratio

In one rectangle, draw a line from one corner to the opposite corner.

04. Rotate

Golden Ratio

Rotate this line so that it appears horizontally adjacent to the first rectangle.

05. Create a new rectangle

Golden Ratio

Create a rectangle using the new horizontal line and original rectangle as guides.

Next page: How to use the Golden Ratio in your design work

Using the Golden Ratio is simpler than you might think. There are a couple of quick tricks you can use to estimate it into your layouts, or you can plan a little more and fully embrace the concept.

The quick way

If you’ve ever come across the ‘Rule of Thirds’ you’ll be familiar with the idea that by dividing an area into equal thirds both vertically and horizontally, the intersection of the lines will provide a natural focal point for the shape.

Photographers are taught to position their key subject on one of these intersecting lines to achieve a pleasing composition, and the same principle can be used in your page layouts, web mockups, and poster designs.

Although the rule of thirds can be applied to any shape, if you apply it to a rectangle with proportions approximately 1:1.6, you get very close to a Golden Rectangle, which makes the composition all the more pleasing to the eye.

Full implementation

If you want to fully implement the Golden Ratio into your design, you can do so easily by ensuring that the relationship between your content area and sidebar (in a website design, for example) adheres to the 1:1.61 ratio.

It’s okay to round this up or down by a point or two to make the numbers worth with pixels or points – so if you have a content area of 640px, a sidebar of 400px will match the Golden Ratio well enough to work, even though it’s actually a ratio of 1:1.6.

Golden Ratio

Using the Golden Ratio in a webpage layout provides a natural, pleasing result

Of course, you can also sub-divide the content and sidebar areas up using the same ratio, and the relationship between a webpage's header, content area, footer and navigation can also be designed using the same basic Golden Ratio.

Next page: Golden Ratio tools and tutorials

Here are some tools to help you use the Golden Ratio in your designs to create pieces that work proportionally…

01. goldenRATIO

Golden Ratio

GoldenRATIO’s favourites feature stores your settings for repetitive tasks

GoldenRATIO is an app that provides an easy way to design websites, interfaces and layouts according to the Golden Ratio. Available in the Mac App Store for $2.99, the app features a built-in calculator with visual feedback.

It also has a 'favourites' feature that stores you screen position and settings for repetitive tasks, and a 'Click-thru' mode that means you can use it as an overlay in Photoshop and still work on the canvas.

02. Golden Ratio Typography Calculator

This calculator from Pearsonified helps you to create the perfect typography for your website in line with Golden Ratio principles. Just enter a font size, content width, or both into the field on the website, and click the Set my type! button. If you’d like to optimise for characters per line, you can enter an optional CPL value.

03. Phicalculator

Golden Ratio

Phicalculator does one job, and it does it very well

This simple but useful free app is available for both Mac and PC. Give it any number and it will calculate the corresponding number according to the golden ratio.

04. Atrise Golden Section

Golden Ratio

Atrise’s tool lets you design visually according to the Golden Ratio

This on-screen ruler and grid software saves you all that messing about with calculations and allows you to design using the golden section proportion visually.

You can see and change the harmonious forms and sizes, while being directly in the process of working on your project. A regular license costs $49, but you can download a free trial version that’s good for 30 days.

Golden Ratio tutorials

Finally, here are some handy tutorials to help you use the Golden Ratio in your designs to create pieces that work proportionally…

01. Graphic design, illustration and art

In this tutorial for Digital Arts, Roberto Marras shows how to use the golden section in your artwork, to create pieces that work proportionally.

02. Web design

This tutorial from Tuts+ explains how to apply the principles of the Golden Ratio to your web design projects.

03. More web design

This Smashing Magazine tutorial explains divine proportion and the Rule of Thirds and describes how you can apply both of them effectively to your web layouts. Some good starting points you can build upon or develop further.

Read more:

  • Typography: Getting more from the grid
  • Everything you need to know about the golden ratio
  • 23 steps to the perfect website layout

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