The Golden Ratio: Fast Company misses the point

Golden spiral in rectangles

Golden spiral in rectangles“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been meaning to do a post on this one since last month, when I followed the link from the Art Newspaper to the Fast Company article “The Golden Ratio: Design’s Biggest Myth.” It’s a great article but not for its insight into its topic, of which there is little. It’s great because it consolidates several common spurious arguments about the golden ratio in one place. Nice to have all of that together.

I’ve written about the Golden Ratio, aka the Golden Section here before, in a series of three posts I did back in 2013:

It’s not essential to (re)read them but you might want to as they do provide some context for this post, as well as an explanation of what the golden ratio actually is. This page (which isn’t one of mine) might be helpful too.

The Fast Company article’s first objection to the ‘science’ of the golden section is that “the golden ratio doesn’t come out to 1.6180. It comes out to 1.6180339887… And the decimal points go on forever.” It seems to me that’s only a problem in design if you think humans can sense or otherwise identify spatial relationships with an absurdly high level of precision, and that we will somehow be troubled by the fact that such relationships are only instantiated approximately. Personally, I think that’s a pretty silly objection. If we couldn’t identify approximate relationships, we’d never identify any relationships. It’s an imperfect world.

The next objection is that some of the claims that have historically been made about the Golden Ratio are preposterous, and the historical source material is of dubious provenance. These claims may be true as far as they go, but they don’t do much to discredit the utility of the Golden Ratio in design. True, Zeisling (who they identify as the premiere apologist for the ratio) does sound like a bit of a loon, seeing the Golden Ratio in places where it’s clearly just a projection on his part. But while the Golden Ratio isn’t quite as ubiquitous as its boosters said it was, it (and its close relation, the Fibonacci sequence) do crop up in some unexpected places, like growth patterns in cacti, sunflowers and pine cones. So perhaps some of the mysticism can be forgiven … but regardless, whether or not you get all mystical about the Golden Section doesn’t really matter either, from the standpoint of whether the Golden Section is a useful compositional framework.

And don’t get me started on the “nobody’s favourite rectangle” nonsense. To me, the fact that most people don’t seem to find golden rectangles more beautiful than other kinds of rectangles is about as meaningful as saying that major scales are useless for composing good music, because most people don’t find C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C to be the most beautiful thing they ever heard. And really, how would you locate any kind of beauty in a simple rectangle? Even Mondrian never went that far.

The argument that contemporary architects and designers tend not to use the Golden Ratio much doesn’t really tell us anything either. For starters, what’s the aesthetic worth of contemporary architecture? A lot of folks tend to think that traditional architecture, such as you’d find in say Venice or Paris, is far more beautiful than the contemporary stuff. Maybe our contemporaries should be using the Golden Section, but aren’t because it’s out of fashion these days. Or maybe they don’t really care about beauty, or if they do, they don’t seek it in harmonious proportions.

To be fair, the article does quote a couple of designers who acknowledge that the Golden Ratio is at least potentially valuable as one of the tools in the designer’s toolbox. And I have to say that approximates my own view as well: it’s not some kind of magic shortcut to effective composition, but used properly it can definitely help.

Interestingly, the article ends with an observation that in a different context could be used to justify the use of the Golden Ratio and other geometries as compositional frameworks: “We’re creatures who are genetically programmed to see patterns and to seek meaning.” True that, and I would go a bit further and argue we are creatures who take pleasure in finding patterns and creating meaning. To the extent that the Golden Ratio can help us to create patterns in our works for others to find, is the extent to which it can help us create works with depth, fascination and, perhaps, beauty.

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