Proportion—The Language of Graphic Design (Second Edition)

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Hot off the press and now on the shelves—the second edition of “The Language of Graphic Design” by SEGD Fellow, author, educator and designer Richard Poulin has been revised and updated with a new introduction, narrative text and sidebars and over 100 new images with corresponding captions.

A notable and acclaimed reference since 2011, The Language of Graphic Design is presented in 26 chapters—a nod to the English language alphabet. Each chapter focuses on an essential design principle—point, line, movement, balance, symmetry and more—examining each through insightful text paired with photography and graphics that illuminate how each principle is applied. With a balance of student and international design work alongside fascinating journeys into the contributions and careers of twentieth- and twenty-first-century design giants, this book delivers a rich understanding of the visual language of graphic design.

International environmental graphic design is represented throughout the book including new and dynamic work by designers such as Base Design, C&G Partners, Carbone Smolan Agency, Collins, Emerystudio, Landor, Pentagram, Poulin + Morris Inc., Sagmeister & Walsh, Bruce Mau Design, MoMA Design Department, Sense Team, Sussman/Prejza & Company, Takenobu Igarashi and Volume Inc., among others. This new second edition is now available in French and Italian co-editions. (The first edition is still available in Chinese, Czech, Polish, and Taiwanese co-editions.)

Co-founder, Design Director and Principal of Poulin + Morris Inc., Richard Poulin has directed visual communications programs for many prestigious clients including Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Carnegie Hall, Empire State Building, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Morgan Stanley, National Portrait Gallery, NPR, Smithsonian Institution, Syracuse University, Vassar College, W Hotels and Resorts, and Yale University. His work has been published in periodicals and books worldwide, is in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress, and has received awards from AAM, AIA, AIGA, Art Directors Club, SEGD, Society of Publication Designers and Type Directors Club in addition to awards from many design publications.

Poulin is also the author of several award-winning books including “The Language of Graphic Design: An Illustrated Handbook for Understanding Fundamental Design Principles” (first edition); “Typography Referenced” (coauthor); and “Graphic Design + Architecture: A 20th-Century History,” all published by Rockport Publishers; and “Archigraphia Redux,” published by Graphis. 


The Language of Graphic Design (Second Edition)

Excerpt from Introduction and Chapter 22: Proportion


The Language of Graphic Design is organized in twenty-six chapters with each chapter defining a fundamental element (basic building blocks of the graphic designer’s vocabulary) and principle of graphic design. Please note that the inclusion of twenty-six elements and principles should not be interpreted as a definitive number—they are solely a reference to the standard alphabet; the building blocks for western language.

Each chapter includes a narrative and visual sidebar referencing a historical graphic design benchmark to further illustrate each element or principle being explored, while continuing with an in-depth, illustrated overview of what they are, why they are important, and how to use them effectively.

Additionally, dictionary definitions start the beginning of each chapter by way of illustrating one of my convictions as an educator. I have always reinforced to my students the value of the written word. Furthermore, I have stressed that words should never be taken for granted. Graphic designers are visual interpreters, however, we can’t be effective communicators without first having a deep and continued appreciation and respect for narrative form. To further this point, I insist that my students always refer to a dictionary in order to remind themselves of the meaning of words (familiar or not). I believe this strengthens their understanding of what they ultimately need to interpret visually. With this book, I hope to achieve the same with you—the reader.


Chapter 22: Proportion


proportion pro-por-tion  pre-‘por-shen n 3: the relation of one part to another or to the whole with respect to magnitude, quantity, or degree.

“Without proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members as in the case of those of a well-shaped man.”—Vitruvius (Italian, 80-15 BCE) Architect, Author, Engineer

Design Precedent

Adrian Frutiger and Univers
Univers Family of Typefaces
Adrian Frutiger
Paris, FR

Adrian Frutiger (Swiss, 1928-2015) was one of the most prominent typographers of the twentieth century and the designer of one of the most notable typeface families ever to be created—the sans serif Univers.

As a young boy, he experimented with invented scripts and stylized handwriting as a negative response to the formal, cursive penmanship being enforced at the Swiss school he was attending. He had an early interest in three-dimensional form and sculpture that was discouraged by his father. At the age of 16, he began a four-year apprenticeship with an Interlaken printer working as a compositor, however his love of sculpture and form has remained throughout his career and has been a strong influence in his typographic design work. During this apprenticeship, he also learned woodcutting, engraving, and calligraphy.

Between 1949 and 1951, Frutiger studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) in Zurich. In 1952, Charles Peignot (French, 1897-1983) recruited Frutiger for Deberny & Peignot, one of the world’s foremost type foundries located in Paris. At that time, Deberny & Peignot was using a new phototypesetting process and wanted Fruitger to adapt typefaces for this new process, as well as design a large, matched typeface family of different weights. It was during this period that he began to work on the design of the Univers family.

The twenty-one variations of the Univers typeface family has five weights and four widths. At its center is Univers 55, the equivalent of a standard “book” weight. Frutiger also proposed to abandon imprecise terms such as “condensed,” “extended,” “light,” “bold,” “roman,” and “italic,” and instead use a reference numbering system that illustrated the proportional relationships between each variation. At the time, it was a revolutionary concept of how typefaces and their related families could be described.

He also created a visual “periodic table” for the Univers family—its vertical axis identifies different weights; any variation beginning with the same number is of the same weight. Its horizontal axis identifies perspective shifts; from extended to condensed with italic variations. Any weight ending with an even number is italic. Roman variations are designated with an odd number; oblique variations with an even number.

With the design of Univers, Frutiger also started a trend in type design toward a larger x-height with lowercase letters proportionally larger to its ascenders, descenders, and capitals. The sizes and weights of Univers’s capitals are also closer in size and weight to its lowercase letters, ultimately creating a page of text with visual harmony and ease for the reader.

The Univers family of typefaces is known for its remarkable visual uniformity, which enables a graphic designer to use all twenty-one fonts together as a flexible, integrated typographic system.

Frutiger has made an essential contribution to every typographic field in which he has worked. His other typefaces include Eqyptienne (1960), Serifa (1967), Iridium (1975), OCR-B (1968), and Centennial (1986). His adaptation of Univers for the IBM Composer (1966) revolutionized typewriting quality, and his exceptional improvement of typeface design for computers led to international standardization (1973) of his OCR-B typeface for optical character recognition. His typeface for Charles de Gaulle airport resulted in the development of the Fruitger series, possibly today’s best sign system typeface in terms of legibility.

In 1986, Adrian Frutiger was awarded the Gutenberg prize for technical and aesthetic achievement in typography.



Proportion is the systematic relationship of one thing to another in any given composition.

In visual communications, it is an essential design principle that is defined as the integral relationship of sizes within a composition. These integral relationships are transparent and function as an underlying framework for all compositional elements.

Proportion also represents the critical relationship between one part of a composition to another or to the whole of a composition with respect to its size, quantity, or degree. Generally the goal of any proportional system is to produce a sense of coherence, harmony, and integrity among the elements.


Historical References

Proportion has largely shaped our visual world throughout history—it is an intrinsic part of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Parthenon (432 BCE), da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503), and Michelangelo’s David (1504).

Euclid (323-270 BCE), the influential Greek mathematician, was the first to put the theory of proportion into words and images. He divided a line into two sections in such a way that the ratio of the whole line to the larger part is the same as the larger part is to the smaller.

Vitruvius (Italian, 80-15 BCE) defined proportion in terms of unit fractions, the same system used by the Greeks in their orders of architecture.

One of the most universal images representing the visual theory of proportion is Leonardo da Vinci’s (Italian, 1452-1519) iconic drawing, Vitruvian Man (c. 1490), which first appeared in the 1509 book Divina Proportione by Luca Pacioli (Italian, 1445-1517). Da Vinci wrote extensively in his notebooks about the proportions of the human body. It was here that he attempted to codify proportion based on his studies of the human form, as well as his numerous observations and measurements of proportions for all its parts. He referred in these notebooks to the works of Vitruvius. Many artists of the Renaissance subsequently used proportion as a primary design principle in their work.

In the fifteenth century, Albrecht Durer (German, 1471-1528) determined what characteristics of the human body were visually balanced and beautiful by accurately measuring and documenting its proportions.


Basic Relationships

Not obvious, and not hidden, the principle of proportion can be simply conveyed. In Priya Hemenway’s Divine Proportion: Phi in Art, Nature, and Science, she states, “The whole is to the larger in exactly the same proportion as the larger is to the smaller.” Its function is to lend insight into the process of design and give visual coherence to composition through visual structure.

In basic proportional relationships, the outer dimensions determine the format of a two-dimensional composition and are its most basic proportion. A square and rectangle are formats with unique proportions that affect particular characteristics of a composition. Outer proportions or dimensions can have an integral relationship to internal divisions and alignments, and affect the viewer’s orientation and are often dictated by the composition’s ultimate proportion.

The relationship between outer dimensions and internal divisions also provides you with a system for managing design decisions. Some proportional systems have been used for centuries in architecture, art, and design. Those systems are based on ratios—a comparison of one set of sizes or quantities with another. Although ratios are commonly expressed in mathematical terms, they also can be expressed as visual relationships. For example, the golden section is a ratio that dates back to the ancient Greeks and its proportional properties possess both aesthetic beauty and structural integrity.


The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is the ratio between two segments or elements of an object such that the smaller (bc) segment is to the larger segment (ab) as the larger segment (ab) is to the sum of the two segments (ac), or bc/ab = ab/ac = 0.618. (see diagram)

It can be found throughout nature, as well as throughout the history of visual and applied arts. This proportional ratio is evident in natural forms such as pinecones, nautilus shells, seed patterns found in the center of sunflowers, and the human body. It is constructed using a series of extended relationships that possess a strong aesthetic harmony since their interior proportions relate in scale to the proportions of the original square and its extensions.

The golden ratio can also be extended to construct the golden rectangle, which was used by the Greeks as the basis for the majority of their city planning and architecture, including the Parthenon (432 BCE). Renaissance artists used it to create overall harmony and balance in works of painting and drawing. Antonio Stradivarius (Italian, 1644-1737) used it in the design and construction of his violins. It has also been used in the planning and design of the Great Pyramid at Giza (c. 2560 BCE), Stonehenge (c. 3100 BCE),  Chartres Cathedral (1194), the LCW Chair (1946)  designed by Charles Eames (American, 1907-1978), and the Apple iPod (2001). Even today, contemporary graphic designers use the golden ratio as an optimal format for print and digital media.

This proportional relationship has also been identified in many other ways over the centuries including the golden mean, golden number, golden section, golden proportion, divine proportion, and section aurea.


Constructing the Golden Section (see diagram)

Anyone can construct the golden section or rectangle and use it as a base for developing meaningful compositional relationships.

  • Step One: Construct a simple square.
  • Step Two: Using a line, form the midpoint of one side of the square to an opposite corner as the radius; construct an arc that will define the sides of a new rectangle.
  • Step Three: Using the endpoints of the arc, complete the rectangle.
  • Step Four: This is the proportion recognized as the Golden Section or Golden Rectangle.

Visual communications is partly an experience of visual balance—of the relationship of its parts to the whole. Perceiving it as anything else is missing its most fundamental component. Just as painting, sculpture, architecture, music, prose, or poetry are organized and methodically balanced around a hidden sense of true proportion.

Most of what we perceive as pleasing to the eye, as well as balanced and harmonious, has some relationship and connection to the rules of proportion.



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