The Golden Ratio: Myth or Magic?

Posted by Scott

If you’re a designer you’re no doubt familiar with the concept of The Golden Ratio. People often invoke the idea to explain why something is inherently well laid out or pleasing to the eye. I have heard people say they see it in some of my work, but I’ve never knowingly tried to pursue it. And that’s apparently the whole point; even if we don’t consciously know it, they say we are constantly seeking it out. When the Golden Ratio presents itself to us we subconsciously recognize it because it supposedly mirrors the proportions of our own human form.

Load of crap? I thought Yoga was a load of crap but now my knee is better. But for the record, I still don’t believe in wizards and/or gemstones, except in medieval times when both apparently worked great. Whatever the case may be, this guy sure seems to think everyone’s favorite ratio isn’t all that golden. Keith Devlin wrote an article for The Mathematical Association of America entitled The Myth That Won’t Go Away and in he he posits that the entire concept of the Golden Ratio as it pertains to aesthetic appeal in humans is a falsehood perpetuated by centuries of myth. He does concede, however, that “the appearance of the golden ratio in nature…is real, substantiated, and of considerable scientific interest”.

I came across the article in @AisleOne’s Twitter who, as it happens, is a proponent of the application of the Golden Ratio in web design and typography. For the record I don’t really have an opinion either way, just haven’t studied it enough. But I thought it was interesting to hear a dissenting viewpoint on the subject given that everyone else I’ve ever talked to about it only sang it’s praises. Makes for an interesting debate I’m sure, anybody have any opinions they’d like to share?

By the way, when I was searching for an image for the article I came across the poster you see above via Myleftisyourright. You can also find some other cool stuff in the same gallery.

25 Comments Leave A Comment


ssp says:

May 6, 2009 at 1:14 am

I’ve had quite a few discussions on the issue with people from different areas. A big problem seems to be that few people even understand what a golden ratio is or is about and still go on about it. To me the bottom line seems to be that using the golden ratio proper requires dedicated thought and very few people actually do it. Due to the underlying maths it’s harder to understand than more common 3:2, 4:3 or A-paper ratios and implementing or even spotting it in a design is likely to be non-trivial.

I tried to illustrate a few issues on this in the blog post linked to which stresses that the issue can have a subtlety which most people seem to miss (e.g. that people frequently replace a golden ratio with a rule-of-thirds type ratio even though those can be considered more different than A4 and US Letter paper which people usually consider quite different).

Of course the whole mystification of the golden ratio doesn’t help either…


marshall says:

May 6, 2009 at 5:11 am

I think the “Golden Ratio” is something that you always strive for but only hit some of the time… Like trying to sing along with Rush.

I know this has nothing to do with your post. But I’d like to see an ISO50 iGoogle theme…


Antonio says:

May 6, 2009 at 6:13 am

The Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds are basic fundamental design principles that should be used or at least considered when creating any piece of design, whether it’s for print or web.

Jason Santa Maria definitely brings up some thought provoking points on why the two principles don’t apply to web design, but I have to disagree with him. Just because there are variables in web design (browser & screen size) that might “cut off” portions of a design, they don’t devalue the use of the principles. You still want to create a design with a well defined underlining structure.

The Golden Ratio and Rule of Thirds not only create eye-pleasing designs, they also give meaning and purpose to the layout and the positioning of individual elements.


Jason Santa Maria says:

May 6, 2009 at 6:25 am

And you raise some great points too, Antonio. I do just want to point out that I’m not saying we should abandon structure, that would be awful! I’m just saying that our old methods aren’t immediately transferable to a different medium. They need to be reconsidered and adapted.


Michael says:

May 6, 2009 at 6:32 am

As humans, when looking for a mate, we unconsciously look at a face for different healthy genetic signs and clues. The closer a face is to the golden ratio the more beautiful we perceived them as and the healthier our offspring will hopefully be. This has no culture boundaries and can be found in nature and art. It’s only natural that we, as humans, apply this to art and design.


Michael says:

May 6, 2009 at 6:49 am

@ Antonio and Jason

But it’s math; even though it’s old doesn’t render it wrong. Math is absolute.


Derek Kinsman says:

May 6, 2009 at 6:49 am

I think the issue Keith Devlin has with the golden ratio is that when it was first discovered or at least recorded in a mathematical statement. It was known as the ‘extreme and mean ratio’ for almost 2000 years. I don’t think it was ever thought to have anything to do with aesthetics. I also suspect that if given a sheet of triangles 90% of the artists/designers out there wouldn’t be able to pick it out of the line, or would probably not pick it as the most aesthetically pleasing rectangle.

That said, I do think that using really solid mathematics to create structure (whether for print, web, interactive, etc.) is probably the single most important when starting on a design.

I would go one step above Antonio and say that a reasonable understanding of the math involved in creating the golden ratio, RoTs, and other complex grids is more important than being able to just create them.

@Antonio, the Golden Ratio is more of nature’s fundamental design principal, whereas the rule of thirds is the designers/artists/photographers design principal. ;)

@scott, that Myleftisyourright poster is sexy. nice find. ;)


Jason Santa Maria says:

May 6, 2009 at 6:57 am

@ Michael

Yup, math is absolute, but measurements on screen aren’t. I’m not saying anything is wrong, these principles just apply differently for screen based design.


Derek Kinsman says:

May 6, 2009 at 7:05 am

Also, aren’t we (designers collectively as a whole) using the Rule of Thirds wrong? Theoretically we should be making 6 column grids and using only columns 2&3 or 4&5 to place the most important content? And then some how dividing the vertical into 3 equal rows one for the header, one for content and one for the footer maybe.

Again, we need to look at the math behind the structures and start there. Not half way through…


Daniel Carvalho says:

May 6, 2009 at 8:05 am

What I took away from this is that you do yoga.

Seriously though, I’m somewhat flexible and tend towards the mindset Jason contemplated, even though I don’t fully agree with him. Like Scott, I’m no guru on the Golden Mean Ratio, but as we can all agree, there is that mysterious, special something that tells us an element needs to move 10 pixels down in order for it to look just right.

But this is where I think the major flaw in logic occurs with the general consensus and things go tits up. Most attribute this fascinating phenomenon to the Golden Mean Ratio. While I don’t discredit the ratios prevalence in life and design, it doesn’t necessarily now become the final summation of good aesthetics. There might be, and I’m pretty sure, more to it than that, that we have yet discovered scientifically.

For myself, I’m intensely compulsive and find that a lot of these rules and guides tend to make me wrestle with design instead of it being an organic flow. I always still use them at varying degrees, but I’ve sometimes found that case where something just looks right and there is no justifiable reason for it.


Anonymous says:

May 6, 2009 at 8:55 am

I believe the golden ratio exists, yet I think it has been shoe horned into graphical aesthetics.

Let us us consider the mandlebot set, which is similar in many ways to the golden ratio. It has been theorised that it can be found in many places in nature, such as ferns and leaves. However you would think me mad to say we should all use it in web design.

The only difference here is that the aesthetic beauty of the golden ratio, in comparision to the Mandlebrot set, has become falsely “learned knowledge” and is not yet scientifically proven.


Javier says:

May 6, 2009 at 9:01 am

Here are my thoughts on the golden man ratio. I’ve explored quite a bit in some of my work. I even had a class in school dedicated almost entirely to the golden section.

Scott, you mentioned people see the golden section in your work. Well I also think so and my reasoning behind this is that we’ve all studied the work of pioneers like Josef Müller-Brockmann, Jan Tchichold, etc. whose work has been very much influenced by the golden mean, rule of thirds and other proportions and in our heads we all sympathise with it and thus, create our own formula that subconsciously mimics those proportions.

I’m just looking at your posters here on the right side (Ezekiel Honig, Tycho live june3, OFFF NYC, Workers) and they all somehow are divided in the same way that you will construct a golden ratio starting with a square.

There are the purist, perfectionist and there are the eye ballers. I think all rules can be broken once you’ve learn them and I think many of us have done that.

So whether you like it or not, whether you use it precisely or not, it’s in our heads. We use it all the time so live with it. Ha!

Take some time to study it though. It’s cool. There are plenty of books that study geometry and design.


Swift says:

May 6, 2009 at 9:18 am

I could rattle of a list of some the most iconic designers & architects that have applied the Golden Ratio with incredible results, in my humble opinion it is the same as using a grid to design with, its not an absolute but a solid foundation to aid in furthering your design.


Matt Davis says:

May 6, 2009 at 12:00 pm

I believe the golden ratio is simply a pattern. When organizing information it’s important to implement some sort of pattern or grid to clearly present it. This is why designers chose this method. They are just relying on a pattern found in nature of which there are many.


John Dilworth says:

May 6, 2009 at 8:44 pm

I love the Yoga comparison. My wife got into yoga about 7 years ago because it made her feel better. Since then, she’s intensively studied it and I’ve learned along with her that everything that used to seem magical or unexplainable to me about it has a pretty logical explanation.

The golden rectangle does have some very unique properties that can be used to help a designer produce a harmonious layout. You’ve got to know what those properties are and use them correctly to get any effect. Since we are almost always dealing with rectangles, sometimes it makes sense for us to pick the golden rectangle if we want to take advantage of its unique properties.

There’s nothing mythical or magical about a designer choosing a rectangle with certain ratio to take advantage of its unique properties to make a design better or to add meaning. It’s just one of the decisions that the artist gets to make.

If you attempt to use the golden section as a magical element to fix a crappy design, it may or may not work. When it does work — I guess that’s pretty magical.


Jonathan says:

May 7, 2009 at 12:19 am

In my mind, at least, you can’t argue with the fact that the golden ratio appears all throughout nature, in trees and humans and so on.

I think the idea is that we find nature inherently beautiful because we come from nature. That ratio is part of us… so when you use it in any kind of design (even one that appears on a computer screen), you’re tapping into something subconscious and primal. Stealing from “God,” in a sense.


Chuck Bergeron says:

May 7, 2009 at 6:19 am

I always strive to utilize grids in photography, websites or any other visual pieces I create. To step away from the visual, I’ve been delving into the world of music theory and am constantly surprised by the mathematics behind it. The tonic, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, and how these frequency ratios relate to each other. There’s definitely something gloriously pleasing about ratios and grid systems, but I dunno if I’m sold on a golden one.

Anybody have any good articles on the golden ratio and how it applies in music?


Christopher Meeks says:

May 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm

There is a large part of this discussion that isn’t getting much focus.

The Golden Ratio, the Rule of Thirds, and Christopher Meeks’ Grid of Awesomeness™ all offer a very real benefit, regardless of medium.

A constraint.

I don’t necessarily believe that my best designs have come about because I’m channeling some inner amazing-ness in the universe. I think they come about because I have a strong starting point. One that can be manipulated to showcase a hierarchy of information effectively.

That’s more powerful than just about any tool out there. And I don’t think it matters if the system is one the Greeks followed or if you found it in a pre-schooler’s notebook. ANY system provides value and allows you to focus on the real benefit YOU can contribute to a design.


Ryan says:

May 7, 2009 at 3:43 pm

I’ll agree with what Swift states:

“its not an absolute but a solid foundation to aid in furthering your design.”

I haven’t put the GR into practice with my designs, but it’s a tool that can offer a good starting point, so long as you know how to integrate it. I’m sure if you put it into any design, you can find some random associations. In the end, it’s your eye that’s going to be the determining factor. 1.6 might look like garbage, but 1.583 might feel and look comfortable. Correct, it shouldn’t be considered and ‘absolute’ to design within, but design from.


Nico says:

December 23, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Hey Scott,

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve came across your article trying to collect new information and ways to apply the Golden Ratio to my life.
I’m studying the Ratio/Fibonacci Sequence/Divine Proportion for over one year and it’s fun to see that this is one of your passions too.
Twitter, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Da Vinci, Michael Jackson, Prince Charles, great photographers, Frank Lloyd Wright, The Beatles …etc…They are all using it!
The most interesting place to see the Ratio is in nature.
This might sound funny but I use it for my eyebrows. It turns out that if you have your eyebrows done according to the Golden Ratio your face gets closer to harmony, beauty (inner beauty) -Anastasia Soare is the expert :)
I use it in my workout sessions (according to the Fibonacci numbers) and also in photography.
It fascinates me!
The best source that I found about the ratio is a book called The Divine Code by Matthew Cross and Robert Friedman M.D. ( They write about the theory behind the Golden Ratio and also give many practical examples of how anyone can apply it to their life (business, beauty, diet, art/design …) It’s a deep dive…