Modernist design’s principles may have a surprising origin

i 1 90616802 the african roots of swiss design

By ashley g. bennett 6 minute Learn

Design stays a largely white occupation, with Black folks nonetheless vastly underrepresented—making up simply 3% of the design business, according to a 2019 survey.

This dilemma isn’t new. For many years, the sphere’s whiteness has been acknowledged as a drawback, and was being openly discussed as far back as the late 1980s, when the few Black graphic design college students making ready to enter the occupation spoke of feeling remoted and rudderless.

A part of the dearth of illustration would possibly have needed to do with the truth that prevailing tenets of design appeared to hew intently to Western traditions, with purported origins in Historic Greece and the faculties out of Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands deemed paragons of the sphere. A “Black aesthetic” has seemed to be altogether absent.


However what if a uniquely African aesthetic has been deeply embedded in Western design all alongside?

Via my analysis collaboration with design scholar Ron Eglash, creator of African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, I found that the design type that undergirds a lot of the graphic design occupation right this moment—the Swiss design tradition that makes use of the golden ratio—may have roots in African culture.

The divine proportion

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

Visually, this ratio may be represented because the “golden rectangle,” with the ratio of aspect a to aspect b the identical because the ratio of the edges a+b to a.

The golden rectangle. For those who divide a by b and a+b by a, you get phi, which is roughly 1.618. [Image: Pbroks13/Wiki Commons]

Create a sq. on one aspect of the golden rectangle, and the remaining area will type one other golden rectangle. Repeat that course of in every new golden rectangle, subdividing in the identical path, and also you’ll get a golden spiral, arguably the extra widespread and recognizable illustration of the golden ratio.

This ratio is known as “golden” or “divine” as a result of it’s visually pleasing, and a few students argue that the human eye can more readily interpret images that incorporate it.


An advert for Swiss Air by graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann incorporates the golden ratio. [Image: Grafic Notes]

For these causes, you’ll see the golden ratio, rectangle, and spiral integrated into the design of public areas and emulated in the artwork in museum halls and hanging on gallery partitions. It’s additionally mirrored in nature, architecture, and design—and it forms a key component of modern Swiss design.

The Swiss design style emerged within the twentieth century from an amalgamation of Russian, Dutch, and German aesthetics. It’s been known as one of the most important movements in the history of graphic design and supplied the inspiration for the rise of modernist graphic design in North America.

The Helvetica font, which originated in Switzerland, and Swiss graphic compositions—from advertisements to ebook covers, net pages and posters—are sometimes organized in line with 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 natural inevitability.”

Greek origins debunked

Graphic design students—represented notably by Greek architecture scholar Marcus Vitruvius Pollio—have tended to credit score early Greek tradition for incorporating the golden rectangle into design. They’ll level to the Parthenon as a notable instance of a constructing that applied the ratio in its building.

However empirical measurements don’t assist the Parthenon’s purported golden proportions, since its actual ratio is 4:9—two entire numbers. As I’ve pointed out, the Greeks, notably the mathematician Euclid, have been conscious of the golden ratio, however it was mentioned only in the context of the relationship between two lines. No Greek sources point out a golden rectangle.

In reality, historic Greek writings on structure virtually all the time stress the significance of entire quantity ratios, not the golden ratio. To the Greeks, entire quantity ratios represented Platonic concepts of perfection, so it’s much more probably that the Parthenon could be inbuilt accordance with these beliefs.

The golden spiral in Africa

If not from the traditional Greeks, the place, then, did the golden rectangle originate?

In Africa, design practices are inclined to give attention to bottom-up development and natural, fractal varieties. They’re created in a kind of suggestions loop, what laptop scientists name “recursion.” You begin with a fundamental form after which divide it into smaller variations of itself, in order that the subdivisions are embedded within the authentic form. What emerges is known as a “self-similar” sample, as a result of the entire may be discovered within the components.

The palace of the chief in Logone-Birni, Cameroon. [Image: CC BY-ND]

Consider the palace of the chief in Logone-Birni, Cameroon. Its rooms are laid out utilizing a fractal grid characterised by the repetition of comparable shapes at ever-diminishing scales. As Ron Eglash notes in African Fractals, the trail that a palace customer would take to navigate the area approximates a golden spiral.

The recursive building of the palace—from tiny rectangles to bigger and bigger rectangles—naturally lends itself to the golden rectangle building for the general type, despite the fact that the match alongside anyone wall is way from excellent.

This methodology of organically rising structure is typical of constructing layouts in Africa; certainly, lots of its design patterns embody this natural scaling, most likely as a result of it hyperlinks to ideas of fecundity, fertility, and generational kinship that are commonplace in African art and culture.


Scholar and spiritualist Kwame Adapa exhibits such a scaling sample in Kente material from Ghana. The black stripes are on a white background, with rows shaped as follows: one, one, two, three, 5—what we now name the Fibonacci sequence, from which the golden ratio may be derived.

A Fibonacci sequence woven into Kente material from Ghana. [Image: Kwame Adapa/CC BY-ND]

Did Fibonacci deliver the golden ratio to Europe?

Robert Bringhurst, creator of the canonical work The Elements of Typographic Style, subtly hints on the golden ratio’s African origins:

If we search for a numerical approximation to this ratio, 1:phi, we are going to discover it in one thing known as the Fibonacci sequence, named for the Thirteenth-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Although he died two centuries earlier than Gutenberg, Fibonacci is necessary within the historical past of European typography in addition to arithmetic. He was born in Pisa however 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 example, Egyptologist Alexander Badawy found the Fibonacci sequence’ use within the structure of the Temple of Karnak. It’s organized in the identical approach African villages develop: beginning with a sacred altar or “seed form” earlier than accumulating bigger areas that spiral outward.

Provided that Fibonacci particularly traveled to North Africa to study arithmetic, it’s not unreasonable to invest that Fibonacci introduced the sequence from North Africa. Its first look in Europe shouldn’t be in historic Greece, however in Liber Abaci, Fibonacci’s ebook of math printed in Italy in 1202.

Why does all of this matter?

Properly, in some ways, it doesn’t. We care about “who was first” solely as a result of we stay in a system obsessive about proclaiming some folks winners—the mental property house owners that historical past ought to bear in mind. That very same system declares some folks losers, faraway from historical past and, subsequently, their lands, undeserving of any due reparations.

But as many try to stay in a simply, equitable, and peaceable world, it is very important restore a extra multicultural sense of mental historical past, notably inside graphic design’s canon. And as soon as Black graphic design college students see the influences of their predecessors, maybe they are going to be impressed and motivated anew to get well that historical past—and proceed to construct upon its legacy.

Audrey G. Bennett is program director and professor at Stamps Faculty of Artwork & Design, University of Michigan. This text is republished from The Conversation below a Inventive Commons license. Learn the original article.