NYT: Why We Love Beautiful Things

An eloquent foray into the science and ecology behind great design by Lance Hosey in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times.

…Simple geometry is leading to similar revelations. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers, mathematicians and artists have marveled at the unique properties of the “golden rectangle”: subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on — an infinite spiral. These so-called magical proportions (about 5 by 8) are common in the shapes of books, television sets and credit cards, and they provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the “Mona Lisa,” the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.

Experiments going back to the 19th century repeatedly show that people invariably prefer images in these proportions, but no one has known why.

Then, in 2009, a Duke University professor demonstrated that our eyes can scan an image fastest when its shape is a golden rectangle. For instance, it’s the ideal layout of a paragraph of text, the one most conducive to reading and retention. This simple shape speeds up our ability to perceive the world, and without realizing it, we employ it wherever we can.

Certain patterns also have universal appeal. Natural fractals — irregular, self-similar geometry — occur virtually everywhere in nature: in coastlines and riverways, in snowflakes and leaf veins, even in our own lungs. In recent years, physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals — not too thick, not too sparse. The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race. To paraphrase one biologist, beauty is in the genes of the beholder — home is where the genome is.

LIFE magazine named Jackson Pollock “the greatest living painter in the United States” in 1949, when he was creating canvases now known to conform to the optimal fractal density (about 1.3 on a scale of 1 to 2 from void to solid). Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all of our brains?

We respond so dramatically to this pattern that it can reduce stress levels by as much as 60 percent — just by being in our field of vision. One researcher has calculated that since Americans spend $300 billion a year dealing with stress-related illness, the economic benefits of these shapes, widely applied, could be in the billions.

[Original: Why We Love Beautiful Things]

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