Originating in Ancient Greece, the Golden Ratio is one of the oldest mathematical principles in the world. This ancient ratio has been used for millennia to explain the repeated occurrence of particular measurements in nature. And, for designers and artists, it holds particular interest because the Golden Ratio is a proven equation for achieving aesthetic beauty.
In other words, if an image adheres to the Golden Ratio, it will instantly be more aesthetically appealing to a viewer than one that doesn’t. Many designers are wary to employ the Golden Ratio because it can seem like a complicated mathematical rule.
While it’s origins are complex, the Golden Ratio is surprisingly simple to apply in your own design projects, and it’s well worth it when striving to produce more appealing and memorable designs.
You’ll also discover how its sister principles—the Golden Rectangle, Golden Spiral, and Golden Circles—can help you to make your designs feel instantly more calming and beautiful to look at.
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What Is the Golden Ratio?
The Golden Ratio or Divine Ratio is a mathematical principle describing a ratio that sits between two numbers that equals approximately 1.618.
First mentioned as the Greek letter phi in Euclid’s Elements—a Classical work on geometry—the ratio only acquired the name “Divine Ratio” much later, in Renaissance-era Italy.
In 1509, Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli published De divina proportione, featuring illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci, which demonstrated how the ratio promoted beauty and order, and brought the ratio renown amongst artists and mathematicians.
How to Calculate the Golden Ratio:
In simple terms, the Golden Ratio is a mathematical theory that can be applied to designs, photography, or art to improve their visual appeal. This is because the Golden Ratio, also known as the golden number or golden proportion, occurs naturally in our environment—in the proportions of animals, plants, and human faces—so we are conditioned from a young age to be responsive to objects that correspond more closely to the ratio.
You may hear about the Golden Ratio “face” in popular culture when movie stars and celebrities are deemed the most attractive due to their facial measurements being in line with the Golden Ratio.
This simplifies the principles of the ratio to apply to aesthetic beauty, but the Golden Ratio can also be used as an incredible tool for designing creative work.
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When the idea of the Golden Ratio first emerged, the Ancient Greeks realized it could be used to create a very visually attractive rectangle, which we now call the Golden Rectangle. They began to consider this shape and its proportions in the context of design.
As it turns out, when you apply a ratio of 1 to 1.61 to an image, layout, or composition, it will look both natural and balanced.
What is the Golden Ratio in art? Because the Golden Ratio historically has been considered to be so aesthetically effective, it’s the hidden secret behind some of the world’s most famous artworks.
Some say the Golden Ratio is represented in artist Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and even Stonehenge. Today, you’ll find it on websites, in photographs, and in the logos of some of the world’s most popular brands.
The Golden Ratio in Nature
Before you can start applying the Golden Ratio to your designs, it’s important to know the even deeper origins of the ratio, before it was mathematically formulated by the Greeks. To understand this, we have to look to another naturally occurring principle, the Golden Spiral.
The Golden Spiral is a form that can be drawn over the top of the Golden Rectangle, creating a fluid spiral from a continuous arc.
This spiral can be seen throughout nature, in the structure of plants, seashells, animal anatomy, and even spiral galaxies.
Related to the Fibonacci Sequence—a mathematical concept in which each number in a sequence is created by adding the two preceding numbers together (for example, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8)—the Golden Spiral is actually a visual embodiment of that sequence. When you turn that sequence into a pattern, you get a curving spiral.
Count those spirals, and you’ll usually end up with a Fibonacci number.
The Golden Ratio is widely evident in nature, in the structure of flowers, plant cells, shells, and animal anatomy. License these images via Clifford Pugliese and Gidon Pico.
As explained by Live Science:
A Fibonacci spiral is a series of connected quarter-circles drawn inside an array of squares with Fibonacci numbers for dimensions. The squares fit perfectly together because of the nature of the sequence, where the next number is equal to the sum of the two before it.
The natural reoccurrence of the Golden Spiral may explain one reason why we find the Golden Ratio so immediately attractive. This also extends to the fact that the Golden Ratio can be applied to the proportions of human faces.
We are more likely to perceive an individual as beautiful if their facial proportions sit between a ratio of 1 and 1.6, and you can see evidence of this in the shape of the Mona Lisa’s face and Leonardo da Vinci’s other iconic work, Vitruvian Man.
The Golden Ratio in Design
While the Golden Ratio is a mathematical principle, you can easily use it in your designs to improve their aesthetic appeal. If you’ve ever looked at a layout and felt it to be calming, orderly, and nicely spaced out, it’s likely the Golden Ratio is at work behind the scenes.
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1. Layout Design: The Golden Rectangle
The Golden ratio can be a useful tool for “mapping” your layouts to make them more visually appealing. This can be applied to both print and web design.
In web design, the Golden Ratio can be used to position columns of text to improve their legibility and aesthetic appeal. A page that features a wide block of content on the left with a narrower column on the right, for example, will lead the viewer’s eye down the main body of content and across to the right, making the overall reading experience much smoother.
If you’re dealing with a pixel width of, let’s say, 960 on your site, your left-hand column should be 593 pixels while the right-hand column would be 367 pixels wide. Together, they create the desired proportion.
Depending on your layout, the size of your columns may not add up as perfectly as you’d like them to (although using a Golden Ratio calculator can help). Don’t sweat it, simply getting as close to that 1:1.61 ratio, in which the main content block is 1.6 times larger than the sidebar, should be your ultimate goal.
You can find examples of this type of layout all over the web, for the simple reason that it’s so effective. Take a glance at the home page of a site like Fast Company or BuzzFeed and you’ll spot that telltale two-column layout.
You can also bring in Golden Circles, which are perfect circles that fit within the spiraling sections of the Golden Rectangle, to optimize the position of important elements on your layout.
For example, a call-to-action (CTA), advertisement, or headline can be placed centrally within one of these circles to really make the most of the Golden Ratio layout.
2. Logo Design: Golden Circles
Golden Circles are also extremely useful for creating Golden Ratio logo designs. A Golden Ratio logo uses the progressively smaller sequence of Golden Circles taken from the different sections of the Golden Rectangle, to create a balanced logo design.
These circles don’t have to follow the path of the Golden Spiral, as shown in the diagram below. In fact, they can be taken out of the context of the Spiral and/or Rectangle, and rearranged flexibly to create a wide range of forms.
Alternatively, the Golden Rectangle can be flipped vertically and the logo design arranged over the Golden Circles within, as in the bird logo example below.
Many globally-recognized brands are said to use Golden Circles in their logos, including Twitter, Pepsi, and Google. If you break the elements of these logos down into circular components, they will add up to a Golden Ratio sequence.
While Golden Ratio logos are often indistinguishable in their construction, they appear to be somehow magically more appealing than designs that don’t use Golden Ratio principles, so it’s well worth trying to build your logo designs with Golden Circles in mind.
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3. Photography: The Golden Spiral
In photography, the Golden Ratio can be used to make landscapes, portraits, and other images feel more balanced and calmer to the eye. A good rule of thumb is to imagine the Golden Spiral placed over the top of an image as you photograph.
The focal point of the image should be at the central point of the spiral, while white space or other less detailed elements can be positioned towards the tail of the spiral. This creates a natural focal point, without the need to incorporate more focus/blur into your image in post-editing.
As with logo design, you can also flip the Golden Spiral vertical for portrait-oriented photographs, keeping the central part of the spiral as the focal point.
An alternative mathematical method for promoting balance in photography is to use the Rule of Thirds. In this method, we can imagine a 3×3 grid placed on top of any image, with four “power points” where the lines intersect along the vertical and horizontal lines.
This is a good technique for images that have multiple focal points, such as a busy landscape or a shot of multiple subjects. Photographers are often trained to compose their images according to the Rule of Thirds, but by using this technique for everything, you could feasibly end up with photographs that look too composed and forced.
In comparison, the Golden Ratio is engineered to calm the eye, making it an almost invisible technique for making images appear more natural. The Golden Ratio in photography is best used for single focal points or lone subjects, because it tempers the aggression of placing a single subject front and center in the image.
With the focal point arranged to match the flow of the Golden Spiral, viewers will instinctively feel much calmer and more receptive towards the image.
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Conclusion: The Golden Ratio
On the surface, the Golden Rectangle, Golden Spiral, Fibonacci sequence, and everything that goes along with them can seem incredibly complex. The idea that a series of numbers can produce something visually beautiful isn’t always intuitive for designers and photographers.
However, as evidenced by the way designers, artists, and photographers have harnessed its power for hundreds of years, the Golden Ratio has developed from an obscure mathematical theory to a dependable artistic technique that holds a place of honor in contemporary design.
It’s undoubtedly a powerful principle to keep in your back pocket, as it can be applied successfully to such a wide range of designs, from image curation to website designs, and even blog layouts and logos.
Armed with a fundamental understanding of the Golden Ratio, you’re now better equipped to choose images and develop designs that customers are drawn to, increasing engagement and improving the visual authority of your brand.
Now that you’re a Golden Ratio expert, why not try out your new techniques on some designs? Start with a blank canvas in Shutterstock Create, divide your design by the 1:61 ratio, and you’re away!
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