• Design Principles Life of Phi -- the Golden Ratio

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Life of Phi -- the Golden Ratio

Alex Whitlow

For thousands of years, the Golden Ratio has been a part of our lives. It has been the cause of endless studies and debate throughout time. Some seek to understand why it appeared with such frequency in our natural and built worlds. Others believe it is nothing more than a mathematical concept layered into discussion whenever convenient.

The studies and debate will no doubt continue. At Quinine, we acknowledge there is validity to both arguments. But, is it simply coincidence that we can find proportional similarities between these established mathematical formulas, the structure of leaves on a tree and the Great Pyramid of Giza built 4,500 years ago?

Whether our relationship with the Golden Ratio is a naturally occurring, innate connection or something that we’ve been conditioned to favour there’s an undeniable truth that human beings have a profound, subconscious preference for it.

Golden Ratio Animation
Visualising the Golden Ratio

What is the Golden Ratio?

Imagine a traditional business card. The likelihood is that you are picturing a card with proportions in line with the law of the Golden Ratio. If the length of the short edge equals 1, the length of the longer edge will equal 1.61 … or to be more specific, 1.618033988749895 — this number is also known as Phi.

Exploring where the Golden Ratio can be found

For some reason, this ratio of 1 : 1.61, whether it’s seen in the overall proportions of an object or image, or elements within them, is more pleasing to us than millions of other alternatives.

There are hundreds of examples of the Golden Ratio, far too many to list here, but two of the most widely referenced include the architectural proportions of the Parthenon (built in Athens in 438BC) and Michaelangelo’s 1512 frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Why is this interesting to retail brands?

As retail responds to the demands of today’s consumer, store environments are becoming more dynamic and animated. We need the built environment to disrupt the customers flow. We want it to surprise, to delight and alert them to all the new products and services that are available. But, most importantly, we want the customer to connect to the brand on a deeper, more emotional level. The experience therefore also needs to include moments that feel familiar, easy and frictionless.

It’s these in-store moments where designers can use (among other things) the scale and proportion of the physical environment to create a sense of familiarity and comfort. At Quinine, we may not directly reference the Golden Ratio in the design stage, but we invariably land on solutions that align with the 1 : 1.61 proportion. This is evident in our store build design, our design of in-store fixtures, and how we set out merchandising displays.

Store build

In creating a new retail format for communications brand Rogers, Quinine defined an ideal location for a back-of-house alcove at the rear of the stores. The choice of location was mainly functional (giving staff quick, easy and visible access to a cable returns area) but we also needed it to feel natural and in keeping with the rest of the in-store journey. When we reviewed the location ‘rule’ that we’d defined, it became clear that, relative to the rear store wall, the position of the back of house alcove aligned with the Golden Ratio.

Positioning doorways to feel natural and undisruptive

Store Fixtures

In EE’s Showcase stores, a large customer bar sits centrally within the store environment. This is an area for many lengthy (and sometimes complex) contract discussions. Here, we needed to provide customer and staff with as comfortable an experience as possible. To make this happen, we carefully set the size and scale of the bar according to the proportions of the Golden Ratio, creating an immediate sense of familiarity.

Aligning fixture proportions with the principle of the Golden Ratio

Merchandising

Retail offers can be made up of many complicated layers of information and choice. The way merchandising stories are organised can help (or hinder) the customer’s understanding of what’s on display. In designing a control plinth for Rogers’ Smart Home Monitoring offer, Quinine set out the zones to sit within golden ratio lines. This provided a layout that felt ‘natural’ and undisruptive, allowing the customer to navigate the display with clarity and ease.

Organising simple display zones so that they are easy to navigate

Face-to-face retail is about people. Whether it’s for the benefit of the customer, staff or both, understanding the Golden Ratio, how people relate to it, and how to use it appropriately is just one way we can help improve their in-store experience.

Design Principles is a feature on our blog where we share a ‘shallow dive’ into different theories, concepts and principles that underpin our work. The aim is to better understand design principles and their practical application in retail environments.

References and other readings:

‘Universal Principles of Design’ by William Lidwell, Krinia Holden and Jill Butler.

What is the Golden Ratio? Inspiration for Better Composition, by Andrea Bruchwitz

The Golden Ratio: Designs Biggest Myth, by John Brownlee

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