Let’s take a deep dive into proportion as a design element – look at its history, basic relationships, the golden ratio, and how proportion can be used to make something ultra-pleasing to the eyes.

At its simplest, proportion is the relationship of two elements within a design often defined by contrasting size, quantity, or degree. It can also be used for individual elements in relation to the whole composition.

Primarily, proportional systems create a sense of harmony or cohesion between different elements. Proportion has been critical to aesthetic value and functionality throughout the history of art and architecture.

Ancient Influences

The grandfather of geometrics, ancient Greek mathematician, Euclid was the first to put the theory of proportion into words and images. He’s also responsible for ‘the section’ where you divide a line in two parts so the ratio of the larger to the smaller segment is equal to the ratio of the original line to the larger segment.

This division was renamed the ‘golden ratio’ during the Renaissance and became closely linked to another mathematical formula – the Fibonacci sequence. Within this sequence, each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it and the ratio between each number is very close to the golden ratio.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man was named after ancient Roman architect and engineer, Vitruvian, who described the human form as the principal source of proportion. Much like Vitruvius’ studies, da Vinci’s drawing codifies proportion based on observations of human figures. Both demonstrate the essential symmetry of the human body, which reflect the proportional relationship of all living species.

The Golden Ratio

As explained above, the golden ratio is found by dividing a line into two parts so the longer part (a) divided by the smaller part (b) is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. In equation form it looks like a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.618033988…

Proportion’s significance isn’t just due to its extensive use across Renaissance art and architecture. It also commonly occurs in natural forms, meaning you can spot the Fibonacci sequence in flower petals, seed heads, pinecones, tree branches, shells, spiral galaxies, hurricanes, human fingers, and DNA molecules.

Drawing a rectangle that uses the golden ratio for proportions creates the golden rectangle, which was used in a majority of ancient Greek architecture. They believed it created a pleasing dimensional relationship between a building’s height, width, portico sizes, and column positions. Examples include the Parthenon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Taj Mahal, and Stonehenge.

Renaissance artists and architects found proportional relationships create overall harmony and balance in painting, drawing, and construction. Beyond seeing it in Mona Lisa’s smile or Eames’ LCW chair, the golden ratio is often used (retrospectively) to explain why certain designs are so visually appealing.

There are pages that demonstrate how the Apple logo and iPod were both designed with the golden ratio in mind. However, I think these are cases of fitting the evidence to the narrative rather than the other way around.

Regardless, designers should remain conscious of how proportion plays a vital role in what we find visually harmonious. Try to incorporate the golden ratio and get those design-ratio conspiracists excited about maths’ ability to explaining art.

If you need a little assistance getting your proportions right in your designs, we’ve got free Grid and Guide templates so you can design easily and ensure everything is aligned beautifully.

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