Mark ( on November 8th, 2008

Blackburn’s third pillar of design which complements both Function and Construction is Proportion.  The topic of proportion is something that I have written about here before.  So, I won’t repeat too much of that information in this post but rather, I will touch on some additional design paradigms that are useful in developing proportion in your work.


Proportion is an interesting element of design.  Not all people can develop good proportion in designs much like most musicians do not have perfect pitch.  However, in both cases most know when they are viewing pleasing proportion in a design just as they can discern when an instrument or voice is performing on pitch in a musical performance.  Of course, this is good news for all of us because just as one does not need perfect pitch to play music, we also do not need a perfect eye to develop good proportion in our designs.  Just like a hand plane or table saw, there are tools that we can use to develop the proportions in our designs.

Balance and Symmetry

Some additional concepts that are related to proportion and useful in design are those of Balance and Symmetry.  Typically, good design will always have balance.  However, a design can have balance and either be symmetrical or asymmetrical.  Contrary to what you might think, both can be pleasing to the eye.

Balanced_and_Symmetrical.jpgBalanced_not_Symmetrical.jpgAs an example of this, look at the two pictures.  The one on the left is both balanced and symmetrical, the one on the right is balanced but asymmetrical. Just as these simple examples depict, our furniture designs can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical and look appropriate to the eye.  However, it is more rare that an unbalanced design will have the same visual appeal.

Phi and the Golden Rectangle

As described in my previous post on proportion, there are several concepts that are of use when developing the proportions of a design. As discussed in that post, the Golden Rectangle, Phi (1.618) and the Fibonacci Series are primary design paradigms that can be used.

What’s interesting about these concepts is that they seem to be central to the way the universe is put together – everything from astrophysics and the way the planets orbit the sun to particle physics and the atomic weights of particles contain aspects of these relationships. While that concept may make your head hurt just to think about it, it is important to realize that though not absolute dogma, these tools can be used to help develop or check the proportions of your designs.

Table_Elements.jpgApplications of these paradigms are not only structural in nature, but can also be used to relate the dimensions of the parts of a design to one another. The example from Blackburn shown in the picture, depicts dimensions of the fillet, the table top, the apron and the leg which are all roughly related by Phi.

The important thing to realize here is that design paradigms can be mixed together. Furthermore, they do not have to be followed blindly or implemented exactly.

Geometric Shapes

Another way to develop a design or elements of a design is through the application of basic geometric shapes. Circles, squares, triangles and rectangles can be assembled to produce interesting and pleasing design concepts.

There are many examples of this especially in architecture. Many of the old cathedrals (when viewed from above) are actually a collection of square elements often assembled together in the form of a cross. The relations of some of the elements of the cross are often found to be related by Phi.

Gothic_Arch.jpgAnother example is the structurally sound Gothic Arch. As seen in the picture, this design element is actually composed from the intersection (shown in red) of three perfect circles . Their intersection forms the Gothic Arch that is found in many examples of ancient architecture.

Common Integers

Dimensioned_Door.jpgIt is often best to avoid unrelated differences between the sizes of components in a given design. To explain, consider an example design for a furniture component, say a door. Rather than sizing the door’s various components to include fractions of an inch, it is often easier as well as visually balanced and pleasing to size the individual components using multiples of common integers. In the picture you can see a door where the components are sized in this manner.

Hambridge Solution

Yet another technique for relating parts of a design is by using the Hambridge Solution. Like the Fibonacci Series, this technique is often used to develop things like the size of individual drawers in a bank of drawers by relating them to one another. In the Hambridge Solution, different elements of a design are related to each other by the square root of 2.

Hambridge_Drawers.jpgThis is best shown in a graphical example. In the picture, you can see a series of rectangles that represent a set of shelves or a bank of drawers. By drawing a diagonal and then swinging an arc from one rectangle, then next appropriately sized rectangle can be constructed. The only caveat here is that the first rectangle must be higher than it is wide (even if you later cut a portion of it off – to create a Golden Rectangle, of course!).

I think what’s important to take away from this discussion of the Three Pillars of Design is that these are things that fill a toolbox of paradigms and techniques which can be useful as we develop designs for furniture projects. I don’t believe that this information should be taken as gospel and applied blindly but rather, it should be used like any other tool to potentially help effect the outcome of a project. Many of the great designs in history (in art, architecture and furniture) make use of these paradigms either directly or indirectly. It’s helpful to explore these applications as they may relate to things that we are working to see if, by their application, we may strike upon something that is beneficial in our designs.

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3 Responses to “Three Pillars of Design: Part 3 Proportion”

  1. “Furthermore, they do have to be followed blindly or implemented exactly.”

    Did you mean “do not”?

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for catching that. I’ve updated the post…my point was that they do NOT have to be followed blindly or implemented exactly.


  3. It’d be great if there were links on this page to parts 1 and 2.

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