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Hard-wired for good design

by Timber Press on September 10, 2010

in Design, Gardening

This guest post was written by author Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

When I wrote my book, Understanding Garden Design: The Complete Handbook for Aspiring Designers, it was important to me to begin with the topic of why design is important. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart which I continue to pursue. As any author can tell you, the minute you release your manuscript, you think of more things you wish you’d said. I’m no different.

Many people are aware of the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio. It’s a drawing that looks like a nautilus seashell and for a very good reason. The principle derives from many natural forms, including nautilus shells, dahlias, pine cones, and sunflowers. This eye-catching little drawing is a study of scale and proportion. While the scale of the drawing sections continually gets smaller, the proportion of each section remains the same mathematical formula: 1 to 0.618. I find this fascinating because the question is: “Why?” What is Nature trying to tell us or what is the function it performs with this distinctive pattern?

We all know that Italians are famous for their designs. Apparently their interest began early. During the 13th century, a mathematician, Leonardo da Pisa, aka Leonardo Fibonacci, studied the logarithm of nature’s structures, particularly botanical structures. He developed the Fibonacci Series which is a progression of numbers that makes up the logarithm we see as a nautilus shell. The French developed a related, equally enduring design concept: the French Third. It is the ratio of 1/3-to-2/3. We see this ratio used in enumerable artistic endeavors, including architecture and design.

What particularly intrigues me is that three Italian researchers proved we are hard-wired to select objects that display this ratio. According to a research paper published in plosone.org, these researchers began with the question “Is there an objective, biological basis for the experience of beauty in art?” They showed great art to volunteers uneducated in the arts. They also showed them great art copies that they altered slightly from the original. Brain scans of the volunteers showed their favorable response to the originals.

We know that we instinctively prefer good design when given a choice. What I’d like to know now is how much and in how many ways does design based on these principles affect our lives? Instinctively I believe it enhances our ability to be our best, whatever it is we choose to do. Maybe the French will develop a test to prove it.

1 Helen September 11, 2010 at 7:40 am

Wish our landscaper had read this book – just kidding (sort of). He was into the ‘tropical mode’ when he did our front yard and we ended up with three palms which proved to be very hardy and two banana plants which die down completely and then resurrect themselves and other plants of course.

2 Patrick Gracewood September 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Vanessa, I got a golden mean proportional caliper from http://holyholo.com/caliper.htm
I use it to check my sculpture. I’ve found that my eye is already pretty accurate, ie. instinctive + trained, but it’s a great tool and help when I’m in doubt. It would work well with drawn plans for quick checks…..

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