Geometry of Design


Author: Kim Elam (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011)

“The purpose of Geometry of Design is not to quantify aesthetics through geometry, but rather to reveal visual relationships that have foundations in the essential qualities of life such as proportion and growth patterns as well as mathematics.” -Kim Elam

Kim Elam’s second edition of Geometry of Design – updated, revised and augmented with eleven new pages from the 2001 original release – works as a valuable desk-side reference tool or a pleasurable cover-to-cover read for anyone looking for an introduction to proportion, geometry and composition. Part of Princeton Architectural Press’s “Studies in Proportion and Composition” series, the book is rich with diagrams, visual references, illustrations and images. Vellum overlays allow double-viewing of certain illustrations – with or without guidelines – that help demonstrate the principles and proportions under discussion. The book itself is a study in proportion, a tidy, efficient and elegantly typeset soft-cover.

Elam introduces fundamentals such as the Golden Section, found in nature and in man-made objects, by citing investigations into human cognitive preference; that is, that people consistently prefer rectangles with proportions of 5:8. Moving on to other algorithms found in nature, such as the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden spiral, we are introduced to the underlying mathematics in sunflowers, shells, pinecones and rainbow trout. She also discusses proportioning in classical sculpture and drawing, the facial proportions used by Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer (both derived from Vitruvius’s canon but with a somewhat different result). Examples move right through history, from Stonehenge to Le Corbusier to the DIN paper-sizing system used in Europe.

Detailed instructions are provided for constructing, replicating and applying these principles – a relevant skill for artists, designers and architects. Next, Elam gives a process for the geometric analysis of basically anything. Working through examples from Vienna chairs to impressionist paintings, the proportioning and geometry employed by the creators of these objects and images are exposed. Although articulately written and clearly diagrammed, the methodology for arriving at the analysis is not immediately clear to the beginner. The systems used for analysis in the book make perfect sense: it is in the choice of which system to use to analyze a new work that the complexity is seen. Does one start by looking for the golden section, or the rule of thirds in a piece of work?

With a wonderful range that touches everything from pictograms and signage, coffee pots, chairs, typography, posters, churches and furniture arrangements, Kim Elam takes an insightful look at the underlying geometry that is all around us. This is a worthwhile book for anyone new to composition or web design, and a good refresher for those wanting to revisit such an important and interesting topic. I hope a third edition is on the way with reference to affordable web design, and the way geometry and proportion function in the digital realm.

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Laura Kozak is a camping enthusiast, bibliophile and buddy of 221A Artist Run Centre. She has a BFA from Emily Carr, studies architecture at UBC and maintains an independent design practice.