The Golden Ratio is mathematically elegant, which is why people like it. It can also be found in nature, which is why people give it credence. But neither of these things means that people prefer this proportion in designed objects or the built environment.
If you want to access people on a visceral level by using the Golden Rectangle as your template for design, then good luck. Fact of the matter is no scientific or neurophysiological data supports the idea that the Golden Ratio is pleasant to the human eye. And there is zero evidence that the brain responds positively (or at all) when presented with it. No instinctual draw, no magic power and no supernatural or psychological force is at play when this proportion is used as the basis for a design.
In a recent presentation, designer Peter Arnell stated “artists and architects believe this proportion to be universally and aesthetically pleasing.” He continued, “The Golden Ratio plays an essential role in the human perception of beauty.”
While one can indeed point to precedents for such claims, this view remains largely unsubstantiated. The nautilus shape has been superimposed over everything from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, to the Parthenon, to the design of the iPod. It’s clear that a lot of stuff can be crammed into a 1:1.618 rectangle but the shape’s aesthetic qualifications are questionable at best. When we examine the case of the Parthenon and the Mona Lisa, we find that they do NOT fit the Golden Section exactly. And in math, "close" doesn't count.
The largely subjective notion of beauty in design is not tied to a single divine proportion. And while proportion does play a big part in the aesthetic judgment of an object, it’s really a case- specific thing. We can describe an object as “sleek” or “sturdy” or “nicely proportioned”, but the latter is not inherently bound to one mathematically elegant ratio. Otherwise said, people don’t use the same criteria to judge beauty in, say, the human face as they do for an opera house or a smart phone.
The use of the Golden Ratio in designed objects attempts to apply rational and finite notions to something that is subjective – design. So if you want your design to look like a snail shell or a pinecone, then using the Golden Ratio is the way to go. Meanwhile, designers who don’t want to surrender their work to the antiquated idea of a single perfect ratio should feel free to use their own aesthetic judgment.
Remy Labesque is a Senior Industrial Designer at frog's San Francisco studio.