Canons of Layout

The Golden Rectangle, which is based on the Golden Ratio, is considered to be the most beautiful shape in the world.  This is so for a reason.  Many forms in nature follow the Golden Ratio, from the proportions of the human face, to the branches of trees, the patterns of sunflower seeds, or the cross sections of sea shells.  The Golden Ratio is found in ancient architecture and design from the Parthenon to Zen gardens.

The Golden Ratio is expressed mathematically as (a+b)/a = a/b = φ.  This simple mathematical statement is marvelously elegant.  It simply says that the sum of parts a and b are to the larger part a, what a itself is to the smaller part b.  Now, if a and b are taken to be quadrilaterals, the presence of two dimensions produces a curious phenomenon: the proportions of the rectangle b are identical to the proportions of the rectangle (a+b).  This is known as the Golden Rectangle, and it is a Fibonacci series.  It’s recursive.  Therefore b is also a Golden Rectangle, and can be divided into c and d, where (c+d)/c=c/d.  And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.  And therein we find the elegant spiral of the nautilus, the radiating pattern of the seeds of a sunflower, the rings of Saturn, a butterfly’s wing, or as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man illustrates, the shape of the human body (some adhering a little more closely to the Golden Ratio than others, I hasten to add).

On to another canon of page design.  There was a design sometimes known as “the Secret Canon” that was used in many medieval incunabula.  It was used by Gutenburg, for example, and features margins of 1/9, 2/9 and a text area of the same proportions as the page.

There are a number of more (relatively) modern interpretations of how this ancient and beautiful layout were acheived, one of the more common being the Van de Graaf Canon, seen here.

The dark lines have been used to reconstruct the proportions of the Secret Canon.  Here is an interesting challenge:  see if you can determine in which order these diagonal lines had to be drawn in order to come up with the red text boundary.  It’s a great exercise to go through; it will make you start thinking like a page designer.

Notice how the red rectangular text area is the same proportion as the page itself (only smaller).  Also notice the left and right magins, being 2/9 and 1/9 respectively for the left page, and how the left and right page together form a center margin of 1/9 + 1/9 = 2/9, equal to the outside edges.

There are a number of other canons for page design, many approximating the Golden Ratio or it’s convergents.

Tschichold’s Interpretation of the Golden Canon

Raul Rosarivo’s Interpretation of the Golden Canon compared with Tschichold’s Golden Canon.

Dealing with web pages as a medium, layout is generally more complex than a simple one or two-column type area.  Banners, callouts, images and menus will all compete for screen real estate. But it’s still possible to come up with a beautiful layout by following a few simple guidelines.  Here are a couple simple rules of thumb I use when considering a page layout.
1. Consolidate Boundaries
Look at a web page and, scanning left to right, find all the edges you possibly can.  The left-hand margin of the page.  The edge of the first letter of each line of text.  Every vertical line that forms a left or right-hand boundary for any section of the page.  Edges of margins.
Now, draw imaginary vertical lines from the top of the page to the bottom, one line for every edge that you have found.  As a general rule of thumb, the more of these vertical lines there are, the worse the design will look.  Text justification is a great tool for consolidating boundaries.  Be especially vigilant for boundaries on forms – they are often the very worst offenders.
2. Find Symmetry
Next, ask yourself if there is any symmetry in the pattern of imaginary vertical lines.  For example, is the distance between two vertical lines on one side of the page the same as the distance between two vertical lines on the right side of the page.  Scan the page from top to bottom and identify all the margins, like the space between paragraphs or the vertical margin above a banner.  Once you have identified all margins, both horizontal and vertical, ask yourself why the margin is the width it is.  If you can’t find any logical reason why a margin has it’s particular width, consider it a mistake.  It should be that particular width because it forms part of a repeating pattern or adheres to a discernible ratio.
3. Use Patterns
Remember the idea that the human mind is a pattern-recognition engine.  It’s what makes music beautiful to us.   Remember the Golden Ratio (especially the symmetry and repetition it embodies).  It’s what makes shapes, faces, and design beautiful to us.  Use symmetry and repetition to base your layout on subtle patterns that the human mind will subconsciously pick up and find innately attractive. A pattern doesn’t have to be boring, a mirror image, or based on multiples of two.  Remember the number 3, once considered the divine number.  Remember ninths of the secret canon (three times three) and consider using them as a guideline for creating margins and white space.  Consider layout that reflects the symmetry of the end-user’s screen itself, with horizontal and vertical margins being the same in proportion to the vertical and horizontal screen resolution of their monitor (easy to accomplish with percentages).

Eventually somebody is going to come along and write a book on Canons of Digital Page Design.  That person is not going to be me.  So until that book comes out, I hope this article was interesting for you and will give you some ideas next time you have to shoot a photo, hang some paintings on a wall, dig a flowerbed, or design a web page.  Good luck and have fun!


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