Aspects of Design





At the core of visual creativity is the concept of “what goes where”. It is the question designers, painters, sculptors and architects are constantly striving to answer.

The placement of one element in relation to all other elements and its effect on the creative concept is the fundamental process of visual art.

Proportion is the spatial relationship (either 2D or 3D) between one element and another.
In the visual arts proportion relates most importantly to the abstract quality of scale and placement.


The simple relationship of proportion to human dimensions or the dimensions of known objects is not what we are concerned with. It is the spatial relationship between shapes, lines or objects that has much more to do with the success or failure of a work of art than whether or not a particular element has proportions correctly mimicking that of the object it might be representing.

In order to understand the importance of controlling proportion lets look at a few examples.

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Michangelo (1475-1564) – “The Last Judgement ” – 1535 – 1541

Michelangelo, separating himself from contemporary thought, believed beautiful proportion should be judged by the artist’s eye, not dictated by mathematical formulae “it was necessary to keep one’s compass in one’s eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eyes judge” (1)

His fresco “The Last Judgment” behind the alter of the Sistine Chapel demonstrates this belief. The figures are massive and grotesquely distorted, instigating a radical change for the High Renaissance and marking the shift through Mannerism to Baroque. 


Michelangelo used a symmetrical composition but the inclination of the massed figures and the undulating shapes of flesh and heaven takes the viewers gaze on a fluid, spiralling journey around the painting.

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Michangelo – Creation of Adam – detail from Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling shows his control of proportion. Not in the accuracy of the figures, but in their placement, spacing and alignment. The Creation of Adam is given tremendous power through the curves of the figures, surrounding shapes and intervening spaces. The counteracting force provided by the second figure on the right and the raised leg of Adam adds tension and balance to the painting.



In Modigliani’s portrait of Pablo Picasso, the proportions of the sitter are distorted but the painting has great impact and tells more about Modigliani’s impression of Picasso due, not only to the distortions, but to the placement and relationship of the shapes.

Amedeo Modigliani [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) – Portrait of Pablo Picasso – 1915

 The monumental placement, hard fixed gaze and severe hair line sharpening towards a single raised eyebrow, all add up to an image of someone that means business. The mass of the head and neck sit on a solid dark foundation. They are supported by buttressing dark shadows, and crowned with a dark capital like a massive Greek column. The asymmetrical treatment of the eyes, ears and collar give the figure a human quality in spite of the grand, monumental appearance.

St Peters Rome  © John Lovett

St. Peters – Rome

St. Peters, Rome is a masterpiece of High Renaissance architecture. Its scale is massive with internal proportions designed to humble the visitor and make him aware of his insignificance in a higher order of things. From the ornate decoration that draws the eye ever heavenwards to the angelic echoes from expanses of polished marble, the cathedral is the collaboration of some of the most creative minds of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo took over supervision of construction after the death of Bramante, altering his plan and following construction through until he died in 1564.


Giacomo della Porta guided the work to completion, modifying the dome, from Michelangelo’s original plan, to what we see today. The beauty and proportions of the finished building have influence architecture for hundreds of years.

These two simple paintings by Egon Schiele demonstrate his mastery of proportion.

In “Art cannot be modern – art is eternal” he has broken the negative space into a wonderful variety of shapes and sizes, from the big balancing void on the lower right to the tiny triangular wedges in the central chair. Dark shapes link the central chair to the object at the top right, where fine, curved pencil marks contrast with the solid dark lines in the rest of the painting.

Egon Schiele [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Egon Schiele (1890-1918 ) “Art Cannot be Modert Art is Eternal” (1912)

In “Door into Freedom” Schiele has beautifully balanced the fine detail of the overhead grid with a sparse arrangement of delicate lines and a few punctuating dark marks to offset the upper detail and move the eye around the painting. By stopping the vertical line on the left of the door before it reaches the bottom of the painting, he has avoided drawing the eye down into that region of the painting.

Egon Schiele [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) “Door into Freedom” (1912)


Having looked at these examples an important question arises. Did Michelangelo or Bramante or Modigliani or Schiele consciously follow a common set of rules on proportion to create the works they produced, or was there a subconscious understanding of some common, human trait dictating “What looks Right” or “What goes where”?

Proportion and Natural Random Order

If we look around us there is a certain order to the arrangement and placement of all we see. Look at the randomly placed objects on your desk or the overlap and intersections of lines in buildings through your window or the angles, intersections and dimensions of branches on a tree. There is something constant in the random arrangement of things.

The images below have been reduced to black and white. This makes it easier to see the abstract arrangement of shapes and lines. Try to look at the images simply as abstract arrangements and notice:

  • the negative and positive shapes

  • the variation in sizes

  • where lines and shapes intersect



What we are seeing is the natural, random arrangement of elements, free of conscious human input. This random arrangement is something we have been exposed to since birth, as were our ancestors right back to the time they crawled out of the swamps.


It makes sense then, that there is a hard wired response to the correctness of the natural random placement of things.

Normally, most of us don’t go around looking at the abstract arrangement and placement of things. We are generally concentrating on other aspects of what we see. When we do focus on the abstract placement of what we see, we discover an amazing beauty in that arrangement. A beauty quite apart from the objects themselves.

An artist, designer, architect, photographer, sculptor – anyone whose job it is to “make things look right” must have a deep understanding and appreciation of the beauty in the natural arrangement of things if their work is to strike a chord with the hard wired correctness craved in the subconscious of their audience.

It is clear then, that the common human trait Michelangelo, Bramante, Modigliani and Schiele all shared was a deep understanding, either consciously or subconsciously, of the natural order in placement, arrangement and proportion. A common trait shared by successful visual communicators since the first marks of ochre were placed on the walls of caves.

What do we see in the natural arrangement of things?

Probably the most obvious constant is variation. Big things are balanced by small, curved by angular, soft by hard, fat by thin.

Certain conditions effect the natural arrangement and proportions. The fact that plants grow towards the sun can create a dominant vertical direction. The fact that animals have developed to survive better with binocular vision, stereo hearing and two arms, legs or fins for support and propulsion has brought about the unusual feature of symmetry.

Things we don’t often see are objects arranged in straight lines. Without outside influence it is unusual to see three objects arranged in a line, very unusual to see four or more.

It is more likely that a group of three randomly placed objects will be arranged in a scalene triangle, less likely an isosceles triangle and less likely still an equilateral triangle.


Often we will perceive a number of objects as a simple recognisable object according to the law of closure (2) where the brain interprets a group of individual elements as a recognisable pattern in preference to unrelated individual elements.

The dot patterns below demonstrate how we first perceive  a group of elements as a simple pattern rather than as individual elements.

Proportion and Random Intersection

We are less likely to see lines or shapes being intersected at their mid points in the natural arrangement of things. The probability of a line being randomly divided 1:1 is less than the probability of the line being randomly divided, say, 1:3, since there are two points along the line the latter can occur.

Proportion - Natural Random Spacing

Natural Random Spacing

This natural group of trees has grown over a period years. The random variation in spacing comes about because the chance of new trees growing half way between two existing trees is less likely than them growing unequal distances from their neighbours.


There is only one point at which the tree can grow half way between its neighbours, but many points where the space can be unevenly broken.

This simple point is the cause of the random spacing and division we see all around us and take for granted.

Understanding the relationship between the natural random arrangement of things and the intentional, considered marks we make is a vital step in connecting what we create with that hard wired desire in those that view it.

“Don’t copy Nature – be its rival”    Pierre – Auguste Renoir

(1) Gardner, 1970, Art through the ages, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York. p.467

(2) Lidwell, W Holden, K Butler, K 2003,Universal principles of design, Rockport, Gloucester MA, p.34

Author: John Lovett