What is the Golden Ratio and How to Use it in Design

Written by:
Orana Velarde

golden ratio - header

Visual balance and consistency are key to good design. As a non-designer, these might be difficult to attain at first. But that’s why designers have visual tools to train their eyes and abilities. The golden ratio is one of those tools. But what is the golden ratio?

In this article, we’ll talk about the golden ratio and how to use it in design. We’ll get a little into mathematics, history and quite a bit of mythbusting. You’ll finish this post knowing why the golden ratio is important and how it can help you design visually pleasing visuals with Visme.

It’s all about perception. Now, let’s dive in!

 

What is the Golden Ratio?

The golden ratio, also referred to as the Golden Mean or Divine Proportion, is a term commonly mentioned in design blogs, art books, history journals, shows about mysteries of the universe and videos about the magic of mathematics in nature. 

Over time, the golden ratio has acquired a sort of fame and notoriety that both inspires and confuses people. The golden ratio is both a mathematical marvel and a debatable design myth, all bundled up into one irrational concept.

Before you shoot me down, let me explain. The golden ratio is definitely “a thing.” A beautifully imperfect mathematical thing that can help designers create visually balanced projects. But what it isn’t is a foolproof solution to creating beautiful, perfectly aesthetic designs. 

The golden ratio and its geometric magic is a tool, just like any other that can help designers refine their visual message. The same applies to the use of document grids, the rule of thirds and the 8-point grid.

Are you here because you love shapes and geometry? Then you’ll love this Visme video about using shapes in design!

 

The Golden Ratio Conundrum

If you search online for the golden ratio, you’ll be swamped with images of the parthenon and the Mona Lisa with a Golden Spiral or Golden rectangle overlaid on top. 

You’ll see photos of shells, and storms and sunflower seeds. And along with those you’ll see Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vetruvian man, Salvador Dali’s Last Supper and maybe just maybe blueprints of Le Corbusier buildings.

As a non-designer, and even as a designer, it’s in your best interest to take everything you think you know about the Gold Ratio with a grain of salt.

For example, we know that the value of the golden ratio is denominated by the Greek letter Phi. But that doesn’t mean that the Greeks made that distinction. It was in fact only in the 1900’s that the letter Phi was awarded the job of being the keeper of the golden ratio. 

golden ratio - google search of golden ratio

The term “golden ratio” was coined by Mathematician Martin Ohm in the 1800’s and before that it was called the “Divine Proportion” by Luca Pacioli and Leonardo Da Vinci. 

The first ever mention of this number in Greek history is in a book by Eukleides of Alexandria where he mentioned the “extreme and mean ratio.”

It’s true that the Greeks were very much into math and geometry and using mathematical calculations for their art and architecture. But the idea that they built everything according to the golden ratio, especially the Parthenon, is highly likely, just a myth.

 

It's All About the Perception of Beauty

The importance of the golden ratio and its relevance in art, architecture and design is all about the perception of beauty and aesthetics. 

Psychologically, the human brain perceives images that include golden proportions as more visually pleasing than ones that don’t. 

This is a theory that can’t be completely proven but has been studied a lot in the field of why our brain tells us some things are pleasing while others aren’t.

The golden ratio is believed to have that magical capacity, to impart an inherent beauty to things so that our brains accept them as beautiful. What isn’t proven is if this is something we have learned to think or if it’s scientifically true. 

Regardless, the golden ratio has become just as famous as the conflicting beliefs behind it.

The mainstream popularity of the golden ratio began during the Renaissance when Luca Pacioli wrote his book De Divina Proportione. In this book, he explained the “divine proportion” and how it was the ultimate expression of beauty in nature and the human form. 

Leonardo Da Vinci illustrated the concept with the Vitruvian Man.

Let’s unpack that for a minute. The term “divine” is a word for something holy, that comes from the heavens. It's an adjective with a godly nature. A divine proportion is a measurement that aims to explain "perfection.”

Perfect bodies, perfect faces, perfect buildings, perfect plants. Following this train of thought in a logical way, then perfect = beautiful. 

With the heightened magical quality awarded to the golden ratio over time, it has become a symbol of beauty and aesthetics, no questions asked. 

But ask yourself this – how can a geometric tool that supposedly explains the perfect proportions of a shape, object or design be used to turn anything into an inherently beautiful thing?

As content creators and humans, it’s important to remember that beauty is relative. Perfect does not mean beautiful no matter how much society tries to feed it down our throats. 

Yes, there is a certain quality to things that makes design look aesthetically pleasing and easy on the eye. This is called balance. And balance is quite often “imperfect.”

The golden ratio is an outstanding example of the magic of math. And that’s the reason why it's important. Not to make things beautiful but to help find balance in everyday things. 

As long as you use the golden ratio and its geometric tools in that regard, your designs will be more aesthetically pleasing, easy on the eye, well-balanced and therefore better received by your viewers. 

But please don’t fall for the fallacy that overlaying a golden spiral on any composition and adjusting it to fit will instantly make it beautiful.

 

Magic Mathematics

Mathematically, the golden ratio is an irrational number derived from a calculation to describe a well balanced proportion.

The numerical value of the golden ratio “Phi” is commonly known as 1.618...

You can see the mathematical formula below along with a helpful visualization. 

The longest section divided by the shortest equals the sum of both divided by the longest. These, in turn, equal to 1.618...

golden ratio - mathematical equation

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The easiest way to visualize how the ratio works, is with a golden rectangle and a golden spiral inside it. A golden rectangle is one that’s separated into two sections according to the golden ratio.

The spiral is created as the rectangle is continually separated into smaller sections using the same ratio.

golden ratio - circular design

 

The Fibonacci Sequence and its Relation to the Golden Ratio

In 1200 AD, the mathematician Leonardo Di Pisa deciphered the ratio the other way around. From his calculations, he derived a string of numbers now called the Fibonacci sequence.

The sequence looks like this:

1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21…

To calculate the next number, you must add the last two numbers and then repeat the same equation. This can continue on forever. 

The numbers in the Fibonacci sequence aren’t exact to the golden ratio but extremely close. So close in fact, that they are often bundled together. 

The golden ratio uses separation to visualize its purpose while the Fibonacci sequence starts small and grows from there. Also, since the golden ratio is irrational, it’s impossible to have an exact number for it.

That’s why this visualization of the golden rectangle separated into squares contains the Fibonacci numbers inside each square. 

golden ratio - numerical design

In the TED talk below, Arthur Benjamin explains how the Fibonacci numbers work and how they’re related to the golden ratio. This is just a quick overview of how this sequence works but a great place to start.

It’ll help you understand why the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio are so often bundled together.

 

The Perfect Irrationality of the Golden Ratio

Mathematically, the golden ratio is an irrational decimal numeral. The interesting thing about it is that when it’s fractioned within itself, it’s actually pretty perfect. 

This secret behind the golden ratio is what offers an unparalleled artistic license when using it in visual projects. We’ll explain how that is in the section about how the golden ratio is present in nature.

If you want to know more about why the golden ratio is a perfectly irrational number and why that matters, watch this video

The presenter uses the seeds of a sunflower to visualize how nature uses the golden ratio and the Fibonacci Sequence as a perfectly irrational way to be practical in the way it grows seeds.

 

How is the Golden Ratio Present in Nature? Mythbusting the Golden Spiral

The golden ratio or divine proportion is seemingly present in nature in many ways. From the way in which a fern leaf opens up from a spiral to the shape of a hurricane seen from a satellite. 

The most common natural visualization you’ll see in hundreds of published articles about the golden ratio in nature is a spiral. Usually nautilus shells, hurricanes, and ferns among others.

When you see something in nature that resembles the golden spiral, most often than not, it won’t be so in a mathematical sense. 

Most of the spirals in nature used as examples of the golden spiral are logarithmic spirals. Their ratio of rotation is between 1 and 2 but not exactly 1.618…

These logarithmic spirals closely resemble the golden spiral to the point where your eye accepts them as such. That’s why they’re used as examples in countless published articles about the golden ratio. 

This takes us back to how much of the golden ratio’s influence is considered a myth by mathematicians.

When it comes down to how to use the golden ratio in design, this myth is actually a good thing. Why? Because it means that you don’t have to follow the ratio exactly for your design to be visually pleasing. You just have to be extremely close to it!

Below, you’ll see images of elements in nature and the cosmos that seemingly follow the golden ratio so closely that they naturally create a visually balanced and appealing spiral.

golden ratio in nature

 

How is the Fibonacci Sequence Present in Nature?

Now that we’ve looked at how the golden spiral is present in nature in a perceptive manner, let’s look at how the Fibonacci sequence applies to the conundrum. Like we said above, this sequence of numbers very closely resembles the golden ratio. 

The Fibonacci sequence is very much present in the way the seeds of a sunflower spiral out of the center of the flower. But not only that. The sequence can predict natural phenomena like the reproduction of rabbits, the branching of a tree, and the number of petals on a flower.

The natural spirals above can all be measured with the Fibonacci sequence in a logarithmic spiral but it’s in the examples below that the sequence is more present.

golden ratio in nature

 

How to Use the Golden Ratio in Design

Finally, we’ve arrived at the best part!

Let’s look at how to use the golden ratio in design.

As a non-designer, knowing when your presentation slides, infographic or social media graphic is visually balanced isn’t an easy feat. Thankfully there are tools to help make it easier for you. The golden ratio is one of them.

If you read the sections above about the golden ratio conundrums and the perception of beauty you already know that using the golden ratio doesn’t mean that your designs will be inherently beautiful automatically.

The trick to using the golden ratio is to find balance. It’s always about balance.

Even though a lot of what is believed about the golden ratio might not necessarily be true, that doesn’t mean you can’t design with it! 

Let’s look at all the different ways you can use the golden ratio in your own designs.

 

The Visual Geometries of the Golden Ratio

The golden ratio has a few different shapes to help you attain balance in your Visme designs.

These are:

  • the golden rectangle 
  • the golden spiral
  • the golden triangle
  • the phi grid

Furthermore you can also have compound circles, spirals and triangles that are formed from the combination of any of the above. 

There’s a large intersection between art and geometry called “sacred geometry” that uses principles of the golden ratio and fibonacci sequence as the basis of the shapes. These might not help in your designs but can definitely inspire some creativity!

 

Golden Rectangle

The first and simplest of the golden geometries is the golden rectangle. The graphic below depicts a perfect golden rectangle which you can use to overlay on your designs and set up the elements accordingly.

Use some of the areas to create white space. Then use the lines and intersections to create focus points.

 

Golden Spiral

The golden spiral and the golden rectangle are similar in how you can use them in your designs. What the spiral adds on is a new set of intersecting curved lines that can help create new focus areas and interesting shape and color placements.

golden ratio over facebook post
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Golden Triangles

The golden triangles proportion is a little trickier. But it can surely help with designs that use diagonal shapes and visual spaces. 

golden ratio - presentation slide
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Phi Grid

Another golden ratio tool to help you set up design compositions is the Phi grid. It looks a lot like the rule of thirds so if you’ve already used that grid this won’t be too difficult to master.

golden ratio over photography

 

Compound Geometric Compositions 

Finally, these are geometric compositions using the golden ratio. These can be as simple as two golden spirals together or a combination of shapes in golden proportions. For example if you put two golden spirals facing each other, they make a heart.

golden ratio types

 

Golden Proportions Without Golden Shapes

There’s another way you can incorporate the golden ratio into your designs without the need of golden shapes. You just need to use the golden proportion of 1.618.

For example, this is a set of squares with two sections in golden proportions. The length of one of the sides is divided by 1.68 and the smaller section has the solution as the height. 1000/1.618=618.

golden ratio - square designs

Below is the same system applied to a graphic in a Facebook cover size.

golden ratio - facebook post

And here it is in the standard presentation slide size.

golden ratio - presentation size

 

The Golden Ratio in Art and Architecture

Leonardo Da Vinci was the first proven artist to have used the golden ratio in his depiction of the Vetruvian Man. If he really used the ratio for the Mona Lisa will probably stay a mystery for the rest of time. 

We won’t even get started on the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The internet will tell you it was created with the golden ratio, but math will tell you otherwise.

For the sake of understanding how the golden ratio is truly used in design, we have to look at the work of Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier. These are two creatives that consciously and systematically used the golden ratio to create their art. 

Salvador Dali’s most famous depiction of the golden ratio is his painting from the 1950s called The Sacrament of The Last Supper

He used the phi grid to set up the elements on the canvas. Dali also included a dodecahedron above the table. A dodecahedron has the golden ratio ingrained in its shape geometrically. 

Le Corbusier is a Swiss French Architect who used the golden ratio to create a design system called Modulor based on a fictional human body divided into divine proportions. 

His idea of Modulor was to create a system for designers and architects to design functional living spaces in harmonious proportions.

 

The Golden Ratio in Photography

The use of the golden ratio as a composition tool is quite common in photography. Photographers use the rule of thirds and others use the golden ratio in either the rectangle, spiral or phi grid. 

Adjusting the composition of a photo to match the golden ratio is done in part while the photo is being taken and to some level in the editing stage. By overlaying a golden rectangle, spiral or grid on the photo, the photographer can zoom in crop or adjust the photo to match.

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Here are a few examples of how the golden ratio is used in photography to set up the composition

golden ratio in photos

When it comes to using photography and the golden grid in design, you can use the golden ratio to adjust background image accordingly and then the content on top. 

golden ratio on a photo

 

The Golden Ratio in Logo Design

Was the Apple really designed using the golden ratio? If you search on Google for logo design with golden ratio, one of the first results is this graphic claiming that the Apple logo was designed using the ratio.

Even though this myth was debunked, it still shows up as fact in many articles about the golden ratio used in design. 

In the debunking, the author explains how the curves and shapes of the apple logo don’t fit the golden ratio exactly. The creator of the graphic below had to manipulate the circles and the logo itself for the curves to fit the circle’s curves exactly. 

Furthermore, the circles don’t follow the golden ratio at all. It only looks like it does because it was manipulated.

The fact that the Apple logo wasn’t really designed using the golden ratio, but looks good anyway, is proof that even if your design is “close” to the golden ratio, it can still look balanced and visually appealing.

You don’t need to adhere to the measurements of the golden ratio exactly. Remember that the decimal numeral for the golden ratio is irrational and has no end. 

Even though the Apple logo was debunked as being designed using the golden ratio, there are a couple of super famous logos that truly were. 

The National Geographic log is quite literally a golden rectangle, and Pepsi also incorporates the golden ratio into their signature logo.

Below is a logo created using the golden ratio. Our designer used the golden rectangle, spiral and compound circles to select shapes in golden ratio proportions. SHe then put them together using the golden ratio as a layout. 

You can create a logo with Visme using the golden ratio in the same way this designer did. Check out the Visme logo maker for lots of ideas.

golden ratio - visme logo template
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The Golden Ratio in Presentation Slides

Can you use the golden ratio to design your presentation slides? Sure, why not! You can overlay any of the golden ratio geometries to lay out the composition of your slides. 

Don’t use the same style solution on every slide as that would make it repetitive. Balance is also made up of variety. 

golden ratio on presentation template

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The Golden Ratio is Only One in a Larger Set of Design Tools

That’s all for today’s look at the golden ratio and how to use it in design. Let’s review what we learned:

  • The golden ratio is a mathematical equation that visualizes the proportion between two sections of a golden shape.
  • The Fibonacci sequence is closely related to the golden ratio and is present in natural logarithmic spirals.
  • A lot of what the internet says about the golden ratio in ancient art and architecture is likely a myth.
  • The golden ratio is a physical approximation to the proportions that our brains perceive as beautiful.
  • You can use the golden ratio to create well-balanced designs on Visme with a number of techniques.

The most important thing to remember about the golden ratio is that it’s only one of the many tools at your disposal when creating visual assets for your business. 

Don’t rely solely on the golden ratio and don’t even use it if you don’t want to! Think of it as a loose visual grid to help you create balanced compositions. 

What is the gold ratio then? It’s only one of a larger set of design tools to help you create visually appealing graphics for your blog, business or social media profiles. Sign up for a Visme account and start creating all these assets today!

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About the Author

Orana is a multi-faceted creative. She is a content writer, artist, and designer. She travels the world with her family and is currently in Istanbul. Find out more about her work at oranavelarde.com

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