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Designing for the Web ~ Layout

Chapter Twenty—One

The Basics of Composition

For centuries there has been a link between art and mathematics, but how can you quantify beauty? How can you create a formula for aesthetic appeal? Philosophers, mathematicians, architects and artists have tried to answer these questions for thousands of years. During art college I was subjected to a lecture on the Golden Section, (who remembers that lecture, come on hands up?), that ambiguous set of rectangles that is requisite art school discussion. During this lecture I was shown slide after slide of seemingly tenuous links between paintings and sculptures, and this set of rectangles. My lecturer at the time seemed as equally uninterested, droning along in self—imposed boredom. What he failed to convey at the time, has taken me over 15 years to even begin to understand. So what is the importance of these boring rectangles and how do they relate to design?

The Golden Section

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The Golden Section, Golden Ratio, and the grandiose Divine Proportion are all names for the same thing; a ratio of 1.618. Nodding off? Not yet? Good! Bear with me. Here’s the math: the Golden Ratio is the ratio between two segments so that the ratio between point ac/bc is 1.618. This may not seem that important, but the Golden Section is found throughout nature, mathematics, architecture, art and design. It is derived from a naturally occurring number, called Phi, which has intrigued humanity for thousands of years. Many usages of the Golden Section in art — and architecture specifically — were no doubt by complete accident. Artists and architects are visually—aware people. Those early experimenters were in tune with the proportions of their surroundings and incorporated what they saw into their art. They did it because it felt right. And it’s this word, ‘felt’, that interests me. Throughout art school I was taught to ‘feel’ my way round composition. I was taught that when something was right, it ‘felt’ right. This school of thought went all the way up through college to university and my first job as a designer. Composition was about feel, not thought. This seemed to go against the very nature of what I understood to be design communication and problem solving. The biggest problem with the Golden Section is the mathematics involved. Using the ratio as a basis for deriving layout measurements is, frankly, a bit of a nightmare. Very quickly, you can end up with unworkable numbers. This is where the Rule of Thirds comes in.

Many theories on aesthetic measurement have their basis in numerical patterns that occur naturally such as the proportions of the human body, for example the distance between your elbow and the tip of your fingers compared to the distance between your elbow and your wrist. Theories, such as the Golden Section, (and its many other names), arise from these natural patterns and they are applied to art, (either consciously or subconsciously), to create ‘beauty’ by way of considered composition.