What Is Beauty? Golden Rectangles and Website Design: Part 1

Amanda Grimm

Is beauty a magical, wonderful thing, or is it based upon primordial instinct? Amanda Grimm from Adult Webmaster Consultants takes up the subject in this first of a three part series examining just "What Is Beauty?"

It's a well-known fact that beauty is found "in the eye of the beholder." I may think that a particular dress is absolutely gorgeous, while you may consider it the most tastelessly offensive attire ever to visit the face of the earth. There is no one approach to finding beauty. Therefore it is very difficult to discuss what is found to be beautiful because each individual is allowed to have a different opinion on the subject. Opinions aside, there actually are standards around which the concept of beauty has been constructed. The ideas explored throughout this three-part series will give any designer a solid understanding of the various qualities that people actually perceive when evaluating their attraction to nearly any object.

Here's the difficult part: the standards for beauty haven't been chiseled out by a board of directors; perhaps the most beautifully human aspect of beauty is the fact that its essence encompasses all that is natural. Perhaps you are of the opinion that physical beauty is no real measure of something's worth; that it is simply a social construction, created and supported by ideals that have emerged within our society. This is only part of the story. True as it may be that our concept of beauty is heavily influenced by societal trends, the greatest influence of all is locked within our genes. Much of the basis for beauty lies within our past. Our bodies respond to stimulus in the same manner that they have for thousands of years, in a manner that protects our selves and our resources, minimizing the amount of energy we exert and, ultimately the amount of threat that is inflicted upon our existence.

It is perhaps best to begin with the simplest of instinctual responses that contributes to our modern perception of beauty. Put simply, our minds tend to prefer those images that require them to do less work. I'm sure everyone can appreciate the satisfaction associated with grasping something really easily. This is essentially the same concept on a much smaller, subconscious level. The attractiveness of comparable objects has been speculated as being gauged upon the amount of processing undergone by the human brain to effectively represent each object. Consequently, among several patterns classified as being "comparable" by any subjective observer, the subjectively most beautiful is the one with the simplest description, given the observer's particular system for encoding and memorizing the pattern.2 In other words, people tend to enjoy symmetry.

Symmetric objects have been found to inspire a greater level of pleasant emotions when examined than do asymmetric ones. Symmetric objects effectively please an audience. Even human infants have been found to harbor a preference for looking at symmetrical patterns as opposed to nonsymmetrical ones.1 Symmetry has been strongly associated with beauty and form since ancient times, in all civilizations around the globe.

Proportion and symmetry walk hand in hand. They both act as essential components of our visual perception as we experience the beauty that we associate with various objects. A balance of parts in relation to a whole is essential for symmetry; objects should appear proportionate to one another. For instance, photographs of female faces must adhere to certain constraints regarding the shape and the dimension of each defining feature. The more closely each feature resembles a preconceived notion of the way it should be, the more quickly the human mind can process it. Similarly, more symmetrical faces adhere to a stronger pattern than do less symmetrical ones, simplifying the progression of their mental processing. Among images subjectively classified as being similarly beautiful, those utilizing more compact codes will be preferred.2 No two people process information about the world surrounding them in exactly the same way. The process of object recognition, however, is similarly executed by a vast majority of the population.

Thus, measures of attractiveness reflect a correlation between beauty and subjective simplicity. "Results indicate that neither average faces obtained by blending nor certain attractive, digital caricatures thereof are as attractive as a particular face whose essential features are compactly encodable using a simple geometric construction method."2 In other words, faces that are easily broken down into geometric shapes and patterns in our minds are more pleasing to our eyes. By saying this I don't mean to imply that anyone ever breaks out a calculator and graph paper to analyze their perceptions, this geometric recognition happens on an entirely subconscious level. Additionally, the simplicity with which images are associated will vary from person to person. No two people process information about the world surrounding them in exactly the same way. The process of object recognition, however, is similarly executed by a vast majority of the population and it is possible to heighten the geometric simplicity of nearly any image in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing.

Another famous example of a human preference for simplicity is the golden rectangle. The golden rectangle is defined such that partitioning the original golden rectangle into a perfect square and a new rectangle results in the new rectangle having sides with a ratio of one to theta, a second golden rectangle.3 I know, I know, you never thought you'd be subjected to the word rectangle so mercilessly. Diagrams of the golden rectangle are, according to the Greeks, beautiful.

The golden rectangle, a rectangle whose sides measure 1 and 1.618 (theta), is commonly referred to as a geometric symbol of beauty. It is well represented throughout generations of art in the forms of painting, sculpture, and especially architecture. Why, you ask? The golden ratio fits precisely into many unexpected aspects of mathematics. The golden ratio shows up in every possible location throughout the five-pointed star, and also in its circumscribed pentagon.4 Many triangles exhibit the golden ratio as well. Thus, the golden rectangle is based upon formulas that our minds are familiar with analyzing and manipulating. To choose one rectangle as being more aesthetically pleasing than another seems a difficult task at best, however, history has proven to us time and again that this task is not only possible it is probable.

Perhaps the greatest proof that the golden rectangle is considered to be a symbol of beauty, or at least a most well-received shape to the human eye, is the fact that it seems as though ancient Greek architects did not consciously use it. The Parthenon, the most famous example of the use of the golden rectangle, displays a fit that is not particularly accurate, although it unquestionably represents use of the golden rectangle.4 Almost any rectangle can be found in pictures of the Parthenon; however, use of the golden rectangle has been predominantly recognized in so many various works of art throughout history that its presence is unmistakably greater than that of any ordinary rectangle.

The golden rectangle and the golden ratio often expose themselves in nature as well, contributing to the familiarity with which our minds welcome them. However, in these instances it is usually far from an exact fit. The spiral that is derived from the golden rectangle is very close in shape of that of the spiral shell on a pearly nautilus; a mollusk whose shell is segmented into air-filled compartments.4 This figure is self-similar, each part resembling the smaller and larger parts surrounding it.

Such patterns are easily recognizable throughout the natural world because they have been ingrained upon our minds, and upon the minds of our ancestors, since the beginning of human existence. Thus, we are comfortable dealing with them as a part of reality. Nature's contributions to our perception of beauty don't end there. Next week I'll explore the implications of instinctual motives to survive and to prolong the existence of our species through reproduction. These concepts may strike you as being a bit outdated, however the fact that people don't struggle for survival in the same way as in the past doesn't imply that they aren't still equipped to do so.

Instinctual motives still exercise a profound effect over our modern concept of beauty, and it is the educated Webmaster who studies that which is beautiful. Stay tuned to find out why!

Amanda Grimm has worked in the adult industry for three years. She specializes in international Web design and usability testing. Amanda holds a BS in Business Information Systems, and can be reached at and


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