Have you ever looked at a new house and thought, “what in the heck were they thinking?” Oversized windows on a small bungalow, or super-tall Corinthian columns standing guard in front of a two-story Cape Cod. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense.
If you were to walk down a residential street at the beginning of the 19th century, you’d probably notice a different sense of design. The buildings and homes would have certain regularities. It wouldn’t be that they’d be repetitive or boring. No, it would be more like they possessed a welcome sense of thoughtfulness and functionality. Windows would appear where needed and they may line up nicely on diagonals. And the gables would point in meaningful directions.
In the old days, people saw differently. Life was slower and more deliberate. 2 x 4s didn’t come in standard cuts, so it wasn’t like you could just grab boards and nail them into place. Everything was cut to fit. What came from this type of hands-on intentionality was an inherent knowledge of geometry that led to an informed method of building. In his book, The Old Way of Seeing, Jonathan Hale describes well how these old structures are governed by the regularity of thoughtfulness.
Today when we design in the digital world, the size and functionality of our designs are less obvious. It’s really hard to say how big a something is when it’s a vector file. We know 2 x 4s come in standard links and windows come in a few basic sizes. So when designing, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I have enough room to put four of those double hung windows,” and there they go. In doing so, we lose the larger sense of proportion that leads to better aesthetics.
A proportion is two equal ratios. 2/4 and 3/6 are a proportion. In a general sense though, things are proportional if they have a similar height/width ratio. A door that is about twice as tall as it is wide is considered proportional to a person. Aesthetically, they appear to go together. However, a door that is twice as wide as it is tall, doesn’t look right at all.
Proportion is a creative strategy because it makes designs better. Above is a diagram with six circles centered on a seventh. Its basic relationships are very harmonious—so much so, snowflakes use them. Some people might say geometry makes things too regular, thus boring. But I’ve never heard anyone say a snowflake is boring.
See how geometry makes this NASA Satellite both highly functional, and beautiful.