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“The golden ratio is the key”*…

… in any case, to good design. So, how did it come into currency? Western tradition tends to credit the Greeks and Euclid (via Fibonacci), while acknowledging that they may have been inspired by the Egyptians. But recent research has surfaced a a more tantalizing prospect:

Design remains a largely white profession, with Black people still vastly underrepresented – making up just 3% of the design industry, according to a 2019 survey

Part of the lack of representation might have had to do with the fact that prevailing tenets of design seemed to hew closely to Western traditions, with purported origins in Ancient Greece and the schools out of Germany, Russia and the Netherlands deemed paragons of the field. A “Black aesthetic” has seemed to be altogether absent.

But what if a uniquely African aesthetic has been deeply embedded in Western design all along? 

Through my research collaboration with design scholar Ron Eglash, author of “African Fractals,” I discovered that the design style that undergirds much of the graphic design profession today – the Swiss design tradition that uses the golden ratio – may have roots in African culture

The golden ratio refers to the mathematical expression of “1: phi,” where phi is an irrational number, roughly 1.618. 

Visually, this ratio can be represented as the “golden rectangle,” with the ratio of side “a” to side “b” the same as the ratio of the sides “a”-plus-“b” to “a.” 

The golden rectangle. If you divide ‘a’ by ‘b’ and ‘a’-plus-‘b’ by ‘a,’ you get phi, which is roughly 1.618

Create a square on one side of the golden rectangle, and the remaining space will form another golden rectangle. Repeat that process in each new golden rectangle, subdividing in the same direction, and you’ll get a golden spiral [the image at the top of this post], arguably the more popular and recognizable representation of the golden ratio.

This ratio is called “golden” or “divine” because it’s visually pleasing, and some scholars argue that the human eye can more readily interpret images that incorporate it.

For these reasons, you’ll see the golden ratio, rectangle and spiral incorporated into the design of public spaces and emulated in the artwork in museum halls and hanging on gallery walls. It’s also reflected in naturearchitecture, and design – and it forms a key component of modern Swiss design.

The Swiss design style emerged in the 20th century from an amalgamation of Russian, Dutch and German aesthetics. It’s been called one of the most important movements in the history of graphic design and provided the foundation for the rise of modernist graphic design in North America.

The Helvetica font, which originated in Switzerland, and Swiss graphic compositions – from ads to book covers, web pages and posters – are often organized according to the golden rectangle. Swiss architect Le Corbusier famously centered his design philosophy on the golden ratio, which he described as “[resounding] in man by an organic inevitability.”

An ad for Swiss Air by graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann incorporates the golden ratio. Grafic Notes

Graphic design scholars – represented particularly by Greek architecture scholar Marcus Vitruvius Pollo – have tended to credit early Greek culture for incorporating the golden rectangle into design. They’ll point to the Parthenon as a notable example of a building that implemented the ratio in its construction.

But empirical measurements don’t support the Parthenon’s purported golden proportions, since its actual ratio is 4:9 – two whole numbers. As I’ve pointed out, the Greeks, notably the mathematician Euclid, were aware of the golden ratio, but it was mentioned only in the context of the relationship between two lines or figures. No Greek sources use the phrase “golden rectangle” or suggest its use in design.

In fact, ancient Greek writings on architecture almost always stress the importance of whole number ratios, not the golden ratio. To the Greeks, whole number ratios represented Platonic concepts of perfection, so it’s far more likely that the Parthenon would have been built in accordance with these ideals.

If not from the ancient Greeks, where, then, did the golden rectangle originate? 

In Africa, design practices tend to focus on bottom-up growth and organic, fractal forms. They are created in a sort of feedback loop, what computer scientists call “recursion.” You start with a basic shape and then divide it into smaller versions of itself, so that the subdivisions are embedded in the original shape. What emerges is called a “self-similar” pattern, because the whole can be found in the parts… 

Robert Bringhurst, author of the canonical work “The Elements of Typographic Style,” subtly hints at the golden ratio’s African origins:

“If we look for a numerical approximation to this ratio, 1: phi, we will find it in something called the Fibonacci series, named for the thirteenth-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Though he died two centuries before Gutenberg, Fibonacci is important in the history of European typography as well as mathematics. He was born in Pisa but studied in North Africa.”

These scaling patterns can be seen in ancient Egyptian design, and archaeological evidence shows that African cultural influences traveled down the Nile river. For instance, Egyptologist Alexander Badaway found the Fibonacci Series’ use in the layout of the Temple of Karnak. It is arranged in the same way African villages grow: starting with a sacred altar or “seed shape” before accumulating larger spaces that spiral outward.

Given that Fibonacci specifically traveled to North Africa to learn about mathematics, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Fibonacci brought the sequence from North Africa. Its first appearance in Europe is not in ancient Greece, but in “Liber Abaci,” Fibonacci’s book of math published in Italy in 1202. 

Why does all of this matter?

Well, in many ways, it doesn’t. We care about “who was first” only because we live in a system obsessed with proclaiming some people winners – the intellectual property owners that history should remember. That same system declares some people losers, removed from history and, subsequently, their lands, undeserving of any due reparations. 

Yet as many strive to live in a just, equitable and peaceful world, it is important to restore a more multicultural sense of intellectual history, particularly within graphic design’s canon. And once Black graphic design students see the influences of their predecessors, perhaps they will be inspired and motivated anew to recover that history – and continue to build upon its legacy.

The longer-than-we’ve-acknowledged history of the Golden Ratio in design; Audrey Bennett (@audreygbennett) unpacks “The African roots of Swiss design.”

For more on Fibonacci‘s acquisitive habits, see this earlier post.

* Sir Edward Victor Appleton, Nobel Laureate in physics (1947)

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As we ruminate on relationships, we might send careful-calculated birthday greetings to Mary Jackson; she was born on this date in 1921. A mathematician and aerospace engineer, she worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia (part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA], which in 1958 was succeeded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) for most of her career. She began as a “computer” at the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951; in 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Jackson’s story features in the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. She is one of the three protagonists in Hidden Figures, the film adaptation released the same year. In 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal; in 2020 the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.

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“The best-laid plans”*…

… can be turned to unexpected use:

In an eighteenth century book, Johann Steingruber designed a type set made of architectural drawings. Via our buddies at Boing Boing: “An alphabet made of architectural plans, from 1773.”

* paraphrased from Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”: “the best laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry” (or on the Scots, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley”)

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As we spell it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1661 that Oliver Cromwell, who had been Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland after leading rebel troops against the Crown in the English Civil War, was exhumed from his crypt in Westminster Abbey, and ritually “executed”; it was the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, whose death warrant Cromwell had signed. Cromwell had died (most likely of blood poisoning following a urinary infection) in 1658. Charles II had returned from exile to become King in a restored monarchy in 1860.

Cromwell’s death mask at Warwick Castle

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“The details are not the details. They make the design.”*…

It’s 2020 and our systems are failing us. We are increasingly reliant on technology that automates bias. We are celebrating “essential workers” while they are underpaid and their work is precarious. We are protesting in the streets because of policing systems that put black and brown people at risk every day. We use apps for travel, shopping, and transportation that productize exploitative labor practices. The list goes on and on.

How did we get here? These systems didn’t just emerge of their own accord. They were crafted by people who made hundreds of decisions, big and small, that led to the outcomes we see now. In other words, these systems and all of their component parts were designed. And for the most part, they were designed with processes intended to create positive user experiences. So what went wrong? Might the way we approach design be contributing to the problems we now experience?

It’s unlikely that the techniques that got us into this situation will be the ones to get us out of it. In this essay, we’re going to take a deeper look at dominant design practices — specifically user-centered design — to identify where our frameworks might be failing us and how we can expand our design practices to close those gaps.

Any framework is a lens through which you see things. A lens allows you to see some things quite well, but almost always at the expense of obscuring others. Prior to the development of user-centered design, technological experiences were primarily designed through the lens of business needs. The needs of the user were only considered insofar as they furthered or hindered those goals, but it was the bottom line that was firmly the focal point of that approach.

User-centered design (UCD) was developed in reaction to those blind spots. It advocated for a design practice that instead focused on the person using the technology, and was intended to create experiences based on an understanding of their needs and goals. As designers, we’ve spent much of the last 25 years convincing our peers of the virtues of putting user needs at the center of our design process.

This practice has produced some amazing products, services and technical innovations. And for designers who entered the industry in the past decade or so, UCD has become a default mindset and approach. By empathizing with users and designing with their needs and wants in-mind, we have strived to create products that are more helpful, more intuitive, and less stressful. Certainly many of the digital tools & platforms we use today would not have been possible without the contributions of designers and the user-centered approach.

However, like any lens, UCD also has its own blind spots, and those have played a role in leading us to our current state…

As the world grows increasingly complex, the limitations of user-centered design are becoming painfully obvious. Alexis Lloyd (@alexislloyd) on what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it: “Camera Obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design.

[Via Patrick Tanguay‘s ever-illuminating Sentiers]

For an amusingly– and amazingly– apposite example of inclusively-empathetic design, see “‘If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds.”

* Charles Eames

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As we ideate inclusively, we might recall that on this date in 1993 (following President George H.W. Bush’s executive order in 1992) Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially proclaimed a holiday the first time in all 50 states. Bush’s order was not fully implemented until 2000, when Utah, the last state fully to recognize the holiday, formally observed it. (Utah had previously celebrated the holiday at the same time but under the name Human Rights Day.)

220px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

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“a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city”*…

John Portman’s Atlanta Hyatt Regency, which opened in 1967, kicked off a major atrium-hotel-building craze

If you’re craning your neck as severely when you step inside a building as you did outside it, you might be in an atrium hotel, an intensely American structure for sleep, conferences, cocktails, and much more. These are facilities built around a massive central chamber stretching a dozen or several dozen stories into the sky; at the lobby level, you’ll find bars, restaurants, gardens, live birds, and maybe even a boat or two.

We don’t build them much anymore, but Americans invented, perfected and exported this unique building style to the world (where it continues to prosper). Birthed in brash excess, atrium hotels were first seen as too gaudy by the modernist architectural establishment and as too profligate by penny-pinching chain hoteliers. To varying observers, they suggest everything from Disney to dystopia. But in their heyday, these buildings promised — and delivered — a spectacle like no other.

Real estate developer Trammell Crow, the man with the most Dallas-sounding name you’ve ever heard, provided early inspiration for the form with his Dallas Trade Mart atrium, built in 1958. But it was Atlanta architect-developer John Portman, his occasional partner, who adapted and built the form into a colossus. Portman’s Hyatt Recency Atlanta opened in 1967, and was an immediate sensation. Atriums became a signature of the Hyatt Regency brand, and Portman went on to work for a variety of other chains, including Marriott and Westin. Atriums later became a standard feature of most Embassy Suites…

The benefit wasn’t just grand views from the lobby, but from every floor; each hallway was suddenly a balcony. Inside that central volume of space, hotels stuffed a range of embellishments. “One would move through a set of functions and experiences as one might a city: from home, to garden, to urban plaza, cafe, and bar,” wrote University of Technology, Sydney architectural historian Charles Rice in his book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman, and Downtown America.

The trouble was, some critics saw, that these atrium hotels tended to be creating, as Rice’s title indicates, a new urbanism that was purely inside. Amenities that once faced streets were pulled indoors and replaced with blank walls and hard-to-find entrances. That formula — so irresistible during an era of urban crisis and decay in the 1970s and ’80s — lost some appeal when cities staged a comeback and the streets again beckoned with their own attractions…

Portman’s first atrium wasn’t in a hotel at all, but in the now-demolished Antoine Graves public housing tower in Atlanta, built in 1965. The idea was simple, says Mickey Steinberg, a structural engineer on many of Portman’s early projects. The architect was just trying to provide some sociable space and ventilation to tenants. (The building was not air conditioned.) “If I had a hole down the center of the building,” Steinberg recalls Portman saying, “people could come out and talk to each other and I might be able to get some air through the building.” 

That notion recurred to Portman two years later for the Hyatt Regency. “It wasn’t any grand philosophy about a style of architecture,” Steinberg says. “He was designing for people to want to be there.”

He was also designing for people who might not have wanted to be in Atlanta, whose central business district was in decline. Steinberg recalled Portman’s intention: “I’m going to create a space for them to want to be in, because downtown Atlanta doesn’t have it anymore.”

The Portman-style skyscraper atrium revived a 19th century tradition: the grand hotel lobby, with its adjoining restaurants, ballrooms and other such attractions. In the motel age, these spaces had often been pared back to a mere desk for paperwork. (You’d even usually go elsewhere for that one ineradicable amenity of the ice machine.) Portman bet that guests would embrace spectacle and activity again…

The atrium concept didn’t initially enthrall the moneymen… Bill Marriott had one look and he said, ‘Don’t bother with it. Motels are the thing.’” Conrad Hilton famously called it a “concrete monster.” A then-unknown savior turned up in the form of Don Pritzker, whose nascent Hyatt chain then had only three locations. 

That bet paid off once the Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened: Visits to the hotel in the first four months of operation exceeded their expectation of the first five years. Guests lined up just to go up and down in the glass elevators. And Hyatt ran with the formula, building additional atrium-equipped Regency locations into the 1970s and ’80s…

A consideration of a uniquely-American style and of the social, cultural, and economic forces that birthed it: “Into the Heart of the Atrium Hotel.”

* Frederic Jameson, describing Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Postmodernism

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As we blow bubbles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that former concert violinist and proprietor of the One-In-Hand Tie Company of Clinton, Iowa, Joseph W. Less, introduced the modern clip-on tie.

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“What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater?”*…

Arman Cinema / Viktor Konstaninov, architect. Almaty, Kazakhstan 1967

“Eastern Bloc Architecture: 50 Buildings that Defined an Era” is a collaborative series by The Calvert Journal and ArchDaily highlighting iconic architecture that had shaped the Eastern world. Each publication has released a round-up of five– so ten in total– Eastern Bloc projects of different sorts. The above, from: “Eastern Bloc Architecture: Sci-fi Cinemas.”

More where that came from at “Eastern Bloc Architecture: 50 Buildings that Defined an Era.”

* J.J. Abrams

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As we take our seats, we might send brief birthday greetings to Valentin Sergeyevich Pavlov; he was born on thus date in 1937. A Russian economist and politician, he served as Prime Minister of the Soviet union for 9 month in 1991. During his tenure he oversaw a major currency reform and (concerned to prevent the break-up of the USSR) he attempted to shift the locus of power from the President– Gorbachev at the time– to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Deputies. When that move failed, he joined a coup attempt… which, when it too failed, cost him his post and landed him in prison.

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Written by LW

September 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

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