Golden Ratio

As a continuation of my previous post about “Force” and composition, I’d like to introduce the concept of the “Golden Ratio”. This is a compositional ratio that is commonly used in classic architecture, music, classic art, the design world, and mother nature commonly uses it in almost everything we see and experience.

This ratio between 2 numbers (A:B) is commonly known in the mathematical world as 1.618. The equation is if: A/B = (A+B)/A then we have 1.618—a number once considered the most beautiful in the world, mainly because of its pleasing aesthetics. The Parthenon, pyramids of Egypt, the UN Building in New York, and the Great Mosque of Kairouan all exhibit the golden ratio.

If we estimate the golden ratio further, we find that it’s approximately 2/3 to 1/3. A ratio that is easily palpable for everyone.

Let’s take this concept even further. In photography, we have the rule of thirds. The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts. With this grid in mind the ‘rule of thirds’ now identifies four important lines (horizontal and vertical) of the image that you should consider placing points of interest in as you frame your image. Now imagine if we applied the rule of thirds to our lives.

For anything in our lives, the optimal setting would be 2/3 or 1/3, depending on the situation. We spend 8 hours of our 24-hour day at work (1/3 of our day). Our most worn clothes are probably only 2/3 (or 1/3) of our wardrobe. We tend to spend the most effort and energy with about 1/3 of our friends. The list goes on about keeping life manageable, useful, and beautiful in our lives, using “The Golden Ratio”.

Optimization and beauty, for me, go hand-in-hand. Keeping our lives in perspective and manageable sometimes dictates staying within this ratio. Anything more or less can cause disharmony, a situation we don’t want to deal with.

The visual world is easy to deal with. It’s the other parts of our lives that require more thought and discipline to create the beauty we desire.

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Force

Often when critiquing design work, both professionally and academically, we have an intuitive notion of whether it visually works or not. This initial gut reaction is what any Star Wars fan calls “The Force”. In the Star Wars movies, the force is this invisible energy that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds all things. This force is referenced in almost all cultures and civiliations.

I often think of “the Force” when I ponder visual design communication. Visual communication can only happen when there’s something to be viewed, a viewer, and a medium that conveys the two. This communication carries with it conveyances (packets of information). Any component and its arrangement (composition) carries meaning that is interpreted by the viewer. When both components and composition of the viewed resonate harmoniously with the viewer, the work is successful. The opposite is also true. If both components and composition don’t resonate with the viewer, the piece doesn’t work and a harsh reaction occurs. Like The Force, there’s no meaning until it reaches the viewer.

The Force (communication conveyances) can be manipulated by designers. Composition, in particular is a strong way to deal with this force. It’s a quick and easy way to create harmony or disharmony. So, composition is one of the first things I deal with when teaching new design students. When we can manipulate this strong aspect of design on many levels, we can control the viewer—a magical aspect of design. The power of arranging things is documented in the study of Feng Shui.

Often beginning designers don’t realize the power that can be harnessed with composition. And, I know which students have it and those that don’t. I guess that makes me a “Yoda” in the design world. Hmmm… I’ll take that.

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Trust

There are times in our design lives when we have to seek help from colleagues and associates. Whether it’s a technique or resource to help get things done, we have a circle of people that we trust. Students especially have to let go of their apprehension and be able to trust the teacher. Only then are they able to learn.

If at any time that apprehension comes back, we no longer are able to learn. Walls are built up and the teacher’s expertise is questioned. This concept of trust is earned and respected. This only comes with time and experience.

There are no shortcuts to trust. Our personal and professional networks are built based on trust. Relationships are built on trust. We need trust in our lives to contribute to the well-being of our society. Please don’t confuse promises with trust though.

Place your trust in people and organizations that have a track record worthy of your standards. Vice versa, you have to have a track record of standards as well.

Designers need that trust in all that we do, from our tools to our associates. We trust because we are willing to accept the risk, not because it’s safe or certain.

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Ordinary

Everything we experience in this modern world is usually designed and concepted by someone’s imagination. From our buildings and transportation we conduct our lives in to the pencils and pens we always take for granted that give permanence to our thoughts. We live in a world of everyone’s imagination.

What’s amazing to think about is how incredibly ordinary the majority of our world is. The next time you flip through a newspaper or drive through a neighborhood, take a visual inventory of what you think is ordinary. You’ll find that ordinary exists and is multiplying. We start to blend in with everyone and everything—a slow death for any creative.

I wonder sometimes if there are mental and physical issues involved with the world of the ordinary. Creatives know how much they need to pull away from the ordinary. They’ve discovered how much they need to risk in order to be seen and heard. But the risks give way to an extraordinary life with beautiful insights—ask any fine artist, the ones who risk the most.

I often ask and plead with my students to show me things I’ve never seen before—an easy challenge but hard in its execution. This means they have to push themselves into their own storm of thoughts and have their own hero’s journey, which is very uncomfortable. The best are the ones that make it through their own mental storm—the ones that make it through the ordinary.

If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.

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Being Wrong

So there are numerous times that I have to juggle several projects that have ever-tightening timelines. One of the most fun aspects of any project is the exploration and ideation phase where the gathering of research starts to gel into a palpable design direction.

The results of this exploration/ideation is where certain fears starts to rise—you start to question your decisions; your intelligence; your career; your reason for existing; etc… The decisions will dictate the direction for the rest of the project.

Although the fears are unfounded, they do exist. But, as a creative, these are the feelings you have to go through—the exact same feelings that keep you creative and living the life you chose. This fear of being wrong can keep you from moving forward. Just like staring at a blank sheet of paper paralyzes even the best of creatives. The thought of ruining a totally pristine sheet of paper is daunting.

Overcoming this fear for each and every project moves us forward and keeps us humble. Give the fear a new context as energy and keep the fear and use it to propel us forward. It’s okay to be wrong. It gives us direction and focus by eliminating the paths we shouldn’t pursue.

As you gain more experience, you’ll start to recognize better paths and directions, but the fear you have will be more of an ally. Always remember, to live a creative life, we must use our fear of being wrong.

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Work it Out

All too often in my observations of the working habits of design students, I see too much of a reliance on technology. They will give up because the software can’t do what they envisioned. They give up on a concept and relinquish their vision to a software algorithm. This is what makes the difference between pedestrian designers and incredible designers. Incredible designers push their own limits and knowledge with their tools. Pedestrian designers give up and let their tools dictate their design. Designers have to find their own breakthroughs—they have to work it out.

In cases like this, I often remember a quote from the great John Wooden (legendary UCLA basketball coach), “Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.”

By making the best of how things work out doesn’t mean you let things just happen. You must put in the work. You have to work it out. By putting in the work, you have more of a chance of creating something incredible. Draw the extra sketches. Explore more colors combos and type combos. Create more concepts. Only then will you be rewarded with incredible design solutions.

Elegant solutions only come from working out the problem.

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Foreground and Background

When you observe a great scene of a movie, a great classic painting, or even concept art, we interpret what we see as if we are actually placed in the scene. We see what our eyes and brain want us to see. But if we pay attention to the composition, our focus comes into play and components of the scene become separated into foreground and background.

This separation between what’s important to focus in on and what supports the context of the scene is essential to both art, design, and, of course, life. With this purposeful manipulation on the part of the artist and designer, the harmony of the composition makes things easy to follow and understand.

What if we applied this concept of foreground and background to our own lives. We start to prioritize our life. We find out what’s important enough to focus in on and what in our lives are just background context. The most important things in your life always come into focus in the foreground and the less important ones go the background and support the important things.

Like a classic painting, pay attention to the composition of your life and it will always lead you to the important things.

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