Math and Design

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Those who are creative often shy away from math. This is partly the fault of many education systems around the world that at an early age make young people choose between the humanities and the sciences. I cannot remember at school anyone who choose both math and art as their specialist topics. In the Renaissance as in ancient Greece the two disciplines were seen as complimentary.

Leonardo da Vinci was not only an outstanding artist he was also a draftsman, an inventor and a mathematician . He looked for the mathematical formulas that underlay beauty. It is da Vinci that bought the idea of the golden ratio to many people’s attention. It is found throughout nature and is one of the most fundamental principles of design. The golden ratio seems inherently ‘right’. It can be expressed in math as:

From this formula you can get a rectangle that can inform the design of tables, whiteboards and also the spacing of sections on a website.

Another mathematical aspect to design can be found in the Fibonacci sequence of numbers:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 etc.

This sequence is derided from adding the last two numbers together to get the next number in the sequence. Thus 1 +2 =3. 2+3 =5. 3+5=8 and so on. It is interesting to note that the bigger the numbers get the closer their relationship conforms to the golden ratio.

The Fibonacci sequence is particularly useful for graphic design. It gives us the correct proportions between font sizes and also the relative values for column sizes. For website design it is good to start with a content width of 987 pixels to make it easy to calculate the relative sizes of columns.

Finally, modern design has been greatly influenced by fractals. These are mathematically governed images that appear to magnify at each iteration. It is like the zoom on a camera; only with fractals the image quality never becomes blurred. Designers often have fractals moving and /or  rotating with each iteration to produce striking effects.

It is clear from these 3 examples that much of the best design is mathematically based. The more we can use math in design the easier it will be on the eye. For website design maths can be a powerful to grab the user’s attention.

Additional: This subject was covered in The Genius of Maths which was shown on British TV last year.  Not sure it’s still on BBC iPlayer but you can access with a proxy like this if you’re outside the UK.