What Is Beautiful?

Posted by Jenny Jahans

In the digital arena, interactive design and user experience methodology is throwing traditional graphic design principles into a brave new world of content architecture, iconography, functionality trends, and new devices; all of which are constantly evolving.

But for me, the core design elements and techniques are more important now than ever. The way in which we get our information about the world may have reduced in size, but the appetite and and sheer volume of what is out there is making it a very exciting time to be a digital designer.

While there are a number of core design principles I use across all projects; like visual communication, typography, adaptability, responsive design, etc. The basis of every good design, or anything that just looks good for that matter, is the ratio and composition of the layout. The way in which different elements interact to build a hierarchy of importance, can take a large or small amount of information, and present it in a way that can actually enhance the meaning and message of what it is trying to say.

Learning from traditional print design, web design had a lot of the same problems to solve. Mainly the arrangement of text and image within a grid system. Using a universal grid to arrange copy and images, can give a consistent and clean feel to a page. Seen a lot in traditional modernist grids, like Swiss design.

Placing text and image as ‘blocks’ on to a grid can lay the foundation for a well laid out design. Allowing a designer to quickly build up a vision of how the page will look and what should have more importance visually for the reader. But simply dropping blocks onto a page doesn’t guarantee a good composition. It is important that the ratio of these blocks or shapes work harmoniously between one another and the ‘blank’ space that they occupy.

When the circle enters this space it establishes an immediate connection to its surrounding space and where it is within that space.

Introducing another circle, shifts the focus to the relationship between the two shapes. But as there are only two, there is little to be said about the ratio of their distance

Now there are three circles on the page, we can start to build a relationship between the three elements and the ratio of the space they occupy. However, it still doesn’t look like a good composition. More work needs to be done on the size and distance between them to improve their relationship, and make them look pleasing to the eye.

Changing the size and distance between the shapes, brings us closer to what we would call a good arrangement or composition. It is almost innate and built in to us, that the three circles above look better than the previous three. But why? Essentially they are just three circles. Why are some compositions better than others?

The same can be said about the above selection of shapes. It seems that we need to take into account the size and ratio of the shapes. But also the ‘negative space’ that they occupy. Which is why the left has a better appearance than the right.

And it is just not for shapes. The same works for images too. The tree on the right is a better looking image than the one on the left, due to the size and ratio that it occupies within the background. But why? What is the magic formula for something looking good? What is the formula for beauty? The Fibonacci sequence, has long been a thing of beauty amongst mathematicians and its role in geometry and even in nature. Essentially how it works is… (and please don’t forget I am a designer, not a mathematician, so bear with me):

1 + 1 = 2

1 + 2 = 3

2 + 3=5

3+5 = 8

5 + 8 = 13

8 + 13 = 21

13 + 21 = 34

This simple sequence, illustrated in the above diagram, is abundant in nature. From plants to animals, to the spiralling galaxies, it appears everywhere.

During the Renaissance, artists like Leonardo Di Vinci started to apply this formula to all aspects of life. From paintings to architecture, leading to much more interesting compositions. Before this period, most paintings composition were orientated around the centre. In the belief that the main focus of the piece should be centred to the work.

During the Renaissance, artists like Leonardo Di Vinci started to apply this formula to all aspects of life. From paintings to architecture, leading to much more interesting compositions. Before this period, most paintings composition were orientated around the centre. In the belief that the main focus of the piece should be centred to the work.

But once the Fibonacci sequence, or the Golden Ratio, started to get applied to works of art. More and more great works began to appear. Allowing the viewers eye to scan across the work, making for more interesting and more beautiful work.

Our whole perception of what we think is beautiful, can fit into this ratio and it is amazing that even the dimensions of the human body fit into the sequence. It was even the basis for the standard paper size that we use today.

A good composition can be incorporated into any aspect of art and design and is used in deciding the grid and layout of many websites and digital platforms. It is always in the mind of any good designer and for me, is the basis of any good design.

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