The rule of thirds and the golden ratio are not the same…

Last night I had an interesting conversation with colleague Laura Fisher of Mitten Artworks regarding a presentation she planned on doing regarding different design concepts. There is a lot of information being published on design theory and fundamentals (including our own “Design Laws”) and there are some subjects that come up more than others. If you pay attention to design then I am sure you have read countless articles on typography, grids, the rule of thirds and the golden ratio. What Laura and I ended up discussing was the constant reference to the rule of thirds being a “easy” version of the golden ratio, despite the fact that they are completely different rules and have different uses.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio is described as “two quantities are in golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger one equals the ratio of the larger one to the smaller. The golden ratio is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.6180339887.” Simply put, the golden ratio is about proportion and the size and placement of one element compared to another.

With the golden ratio if we look at an element we determin the ratio of one section to the other (in this diagram the left hand section compaired to section 1) we arrive at the size based on both the height and width of the element (of which are equal when removing the left hand section) and it is not determined by a ratio of a third.

This rule specificly deals with astheticly pleasing proportions and ratios between two elements.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds however deals with a whole different design theory. The rule of thirds instead is a way to place elements with in a design as a way to control where a viewers eyes will travel and what they will see. “The rule states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.”

The idea is that by placing and arranging elements with the rule of thirds in mind will create a more interesting design and that a users eyes will flow through the intersections of the grid thus creating a design that has more energy and tension.

You may have noticed that this description of the rule of thirds does not talk about nor focus on proportion. You may also notice that an element taking up two out of three columns does not equate to the mathematics that determine the golden ratio.They are two completely different rules.

Design and Use Design Intentionally

While it may seem like splitting hairs, I believe in designing intentionally. By using design rules incorrectly or unintentionally you will end up with a less effective design. it just takes a little bit more care and understanding but it is well worth the effort to use these rules correctly.