Steven Heller, George Bokhua and Paula Scher assess the true value of the golden ratio
Wading in on perhaps the most divisive theory in design history, the three designers discuss the importance of learning its rules, if only to know how to break them.
It’s Nice That is currently partnering with Skillshare, an online learning community for creatives, on a series of articles exploring the value of learning new skills. In this piece, we unpack the golden ratio and impact on graphic design.
There’s nothing more daunting than a blank canvas, so creatives of all types are often keen to find ways to bring order to the chaos that is limitless possibility. One of the most classic and deeply entrenched creative techniques of this ilk is the golden ratio. It’s founded in the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers wherein each number is the sum of itself and the previous number, which relate to proportions found commonly in nature. The golden ratio maps these proportions onto a grid system of sorts. The theory is that when applied to anything from a page layout, to the composition of a photograph, it makes that visual inherently more beautiful, because of its affinity with nature. Others say innovative design lies outside the grid. But, to be able to assess whether one is better than the other, surely you must have to know them both relatively well? After all, to know how to break any rules, first you have to learn them.
The golden ratio has been around for thousands of years, and remains divisive to this day, but arguably no other theory is as prevalent, foundational and influential. On Skillshare, George Bokhua – a graphic designer with close to quarter of a million followers on Instagram, who has worked with clients such as Disney, New Balance, Wired, the NFL and Sonic – teaches logo design from a few different approaches. One of his most popular classes is titled Mastering Logo Design: Gridding with the Golden Ratio. In the lesson, he starts off introducing the basics: what the golden ratio is, where its famous spiral can be found in nature, and how you can use it as a guide to grid logos and compose multiple shapes “in one complete form”. He says it’s a step up from another of his classes, based on simpler geometry, and offers something a little more advanced.
“The golden ratio is when one segment of design is about 1.6 times longer than it is wide,” George explains of the process. “The given proportion was and is considered by some as a most appealing ratio.” However, it comes down to personal preference. When designing icons and symbols, George says he prefers the ratio of his design to be closer to square “because it's more practical and also it's easier to balance in regards to the assisting type”. However, it’s always useful to have a range of techniques ready to deploy, depending on the design challenge.
The golden spiral, George says, has its place. “[It] should be used in cases where the opportunity presents itself. If I am designing the shell of a snail, it’s obvious that the proportions are not going to work, simply because the decay of the spiral in a snail shell is lesser in value then the golden ratio (1.618...). But, if I am designing a swan’s neck, even though in real life the swan's neck does not 100 per cent correspond with the golden ratio, I still take the liberty to design it so – simply because it is closer in value to the golden spiral. Also I take pleasure in paying homage to the ‘romantic’ idea of the golden spiral being a sort of beauty standard.”
Importantly these are guidelines, not shackles. Creatives shouldn’t see them as restrictions rather frameworks within which to roam free. “The designer has the liberty to choose whatever they find appealing to the eye,” George continues, “as long as some cohesion is present. Grids just help to structure geometric shapes and other design elements so that the piece has solid, well-thought-out composition. If the sign/graphic has an abundance of organic shapes, there is a good chance that the connection of those shapes create spiral-like elements. In that case, if those spiral-like elements are close in value with the golden spiral, then I use the golden spiral as a guiding tool to grid that particular area of the piece.”
Steven Heller is a world renowned expert on graphic design, having been an art director at The New York Times for a whopping 33 years, a teacher at the School of Visual Arts for decades (he has his own Skillshare class too) and author, co-author or editor of over 170 books on design and popular culture. Most pertinent to this subject, he co-authored with Gail Anderson The Logo Design Idea Book. Within the book, the authors took 50 of the most recognisable logos in today’s culture – from IBM to eBay, Lego to NASA – and dissected them, analysing their components, design and ultimate success, as a method by which to inspire and guide aspiring logo designers.
So, does he believe the golden proportions lie beneath every good logo? “Yes and no,” he says. “Classic proportions make for excellent design but not all logos are rooted in perfection. Indeed not all good art is perfect. So it really cannot be generalised unless that is your underlying philosophy – perfection in the classic sense, that is.” Either way, it seems learning the theory can at the very least inform your own individual design approach, whether that be classical beauty, or disruptive visuals that purposely go against the former.
The by-proxy benefit of adding this particular skill to your creative toolbelt, Steven says, is discipline. “It is always good to have an armature on which to hang anything, then expand from there or destroy it entirely. That's the ideal. Some destruction is simply bad.”
In November 2019, Pentagram’s Emily Oberman revealed her redesign of the Warner Bros shield logo, which had been redrawn to appear more “sleek and clean” while the letters were intended to appear more “balanced”. At the time, Oberman explained that she and her team had employed the use of the golden spiral to guide the redesign, with the new shield form “based on the classical proportions of the golden ratio”.
By way of balance, fellow Pentagram New York partner and Skillshare teacher Paula Scher sits firmly in the opposite camp, when it comes to the golden spiral theory. When asked if she believes the golden proportions lie beneath every good logo she quips: “I have no idea. I am suspicious of rules in the first place.”
Conversely, Steven Heller says it’s vital to understand context. “Everybody needs to know what it is they are rebelling against. Learning basics never hurt anyone. It is fundamental. Breaking is dangerous and courageous and often foolhardy.”
Many great logos and globally recognisable icons have been created using this theory, showing its worth as a system for designers to apply when they need one. To Steven’s point, it’s always worth learning new skills to inform your practice, even if you find out it doesn’t suit your own creative process. You never know, it might provide a breakthrough, even one you weren’t expecting. Steven concludes: “The approach brings discipline and with discipline comes solace. Sometimes comfort. Sometimes emotion derives from discipline. Ultimately, most effective graphic design is built on a system. For me, the Dada designers knew how to thumb their noses at the prevailing system and replace it with one of their own.”
Both Steven Heller and Paula Scher have their own design orientated Skillshare classes; Steven teaches The Designer’s Guide to Writing and Research while Paula teaches Designing Logos that Evolve – both offering invaluable insights and advice from people at the top of their game.