A guide to the Golden Ratio for designers

4 min read
Emily Esposito  •  Oct 19, 2018
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Good design has been up for debate for as long as we’ve been creating. There are endless forums, social media threads, and in-person conversations about what makes for great design, with everyone contributing their own point of view.

That’s the beauty of design, right? Everyone can interpret it differently.

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While there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach for design, there is a concrete, mathematical approach that can help us get one step closer to creating amazing design experiences every time: the Golden Ratio.

The Golden Ratio is a mathematical ratio you can find almost anywhere, like nature, architecture, painting, and music. When specifically applied to design specifically, it creates an organic, balanced, and aesthetically pleasing composition.

In this article, we’ll dive into what the Golden Ratio is, how to calculate it, and how to use it in design—including a handy list of tools.

What is the Golden Ratio?

Also known as the Golden Section, Golden Mean, Divine Proportion, or the Greek letter Phi, the Golden Ratio is a special number that approximately equals 1.618. The ratio itself comes from the Fibonacci sequence, a naturally occurring sequence of numbers that can be found everywhere, from the number of leaves on a tree to the shape of a seashell.

The Fibonacci sequence is the sum of the two numbers before it. It goes: 0, 1,1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on, to infinity. From this pattern, the Greeks developed the Golden Ratio to better express the difference between any two numbers in the sequence.

How does this relate to design? You can find the Golden Ratio when you divide a line into two parts and the longer part (a) divided by the smaller part (b) is equal to the sum of (a) + (b) divided by (a), which both equal 1.618. This formula can help you when creating shapes, logos, layouts, and more.

You can also take this idea and create a golden rectangle. Take a square and multiple one side by 1.618 to get a new shape: a rectangle with harmonious proportions.

If you lay the square over the rectangle, the relationship between the two shapes will give you the Golden Ratio.

“While there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach for designing, there is a concrete, mathematical approach that can help us get one step closer to creating amazing design experiences every time: the Golden Ratio.”
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If you keep applying the Golden Ratio formula to the new rectangle on the far right, you will end up with an image made up of increasingly smaller squares.

If you draw a spiral over each square, starting in one corner and ending in the opposite one, you’ll create the first curve of the Fibonacci sequence (also known as the Golden Spiral).

How to use the Golden Ratio in design

Now that the math lesson is over, how can you apply this knowledge to the work you do on a daily basis?

Here are four ways to use the Golden Ratio in design:

1. Typography and defining hierarchy

The Golden Ratio can help you figure out what size font you should use for headers and body copy on a website, landing page, blog post, or even print campaign.

Let’s say your body copy is 12px. If you multiply 12 by 1.618, you’ll get 19.416, meaning a header text size of 19px or 20px would follow the Golden Ratio and balance the 12px body font size.

If you want to figure out how big your body text size should be, you could do the opposite. If your header text is 25px, you can divide it by 1.618 to find the body text (15 or 16 px).

2. Cropping and resizing images

When cropping images, it’s easy to identify white space to cut out. But, how do you make sure the image is still balanced after you resize it? You can use the Golden Spiral as a guide for the image’s composition.

For example, if you overlay the Golden Spiral on an image, you can make sure that the focal point is in the middle of the spiral.

3. Layout

Leveraging the Golden Ratio can help you design a visually appealing UI that draws the user’s attention to what matters the most. For example, a page that highlights a wide block of content on the left with a narrower column on the right can follow the Golden Ratio’s proportions and help you decide where to put the most important content.

4. Logo development

If you’re designing a new logo and feeling stuck, turn to the Golden Ratio to help you sketch out the proportions and shapes. Many popular logos follow the Golden Ratio, like Twitter, Apple, and Pepsi.

Designer Kazi Mohammed Erfan even challenged himself to create 25 new logos entirely based on the Golden Ratio. The result? Simple, balanced, and beautiful icons.

Photo credit: Kazi Mohammed Erfan

Tools to help you use the Golden Ratio

You don’t need to break out the pencil and paper to calculate the Golden Ratio — there are a number of apps that can do it for you.

Here are five tools to help you use the Golden Ratio in your designs:

  • Golden Ratio Calculator: Calculate the shorter side, longer side, and combined length of the two sides to figure out the Golden Ratio.
  • goldenRATIO: Created for designers and developers, this app gives you an easy way to design websites, interfaces, layouts, and more according to the Golden Ratio. It includes a built-in calculator with visual feedback and features to store screen position and settings, so you don’t have to rearrange the Golden Ratio for every task.
  • Golden Ratio Typography Calculator: Discover the perfect typography for your website by entering your font size and width. You can optimize based on font size, line height, width, and characters per line.
  • PhiMatrix: This Golden Ratio design and analysis software comes customizable grids and templates that you can overlay on any image. It can be used for design and composition, product design, logo development, and more.
  • Golden Ratio Sketch resource: Download a free Sketch file of the Golden Spiral to help with image and layout composition.

Getting started with the Golden Ratio

Once you know what to look for, you’ll start noticing the Golden Ratio everywhere. (Don’t believe us? Look at your hands. Even your fingers follow the Golden Ratio.) The human eye is used to seeing this magical number and we subconsciously react positively to it.

As designers, we can use this number to our advantage. Even small tweaks to the way you crop an image or develop a layout can dramatically improve how your users interact with your design.