Timeless design principles – Van de Graaf (Golden) Canon

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Book page with medieval calligraphy

How do you begin to describe a story that stretches over so many centuries? It seems like a good idea to start “from the beginning”, but what if this beginning is hidden in these distant times, when a revolutionary new invention – the printing press – was just entering the stage of history? So, does this story begin in the Renaissance? It would be a far-reaching simplification, because the first printers were not created in isolation from the existing tradition. They were preceded by generations of scribes who were always faced with the same question at the beginning of their work – how to plan the pages of a book, their layout, margins, what proportions to choose so that the effect would be harmonious and balanced at first glance.

They approached this task in a variety of ways, some of them seemed to rely on their own visual judgement, which resulted in more accidental proportions and arrangements and in other works one can clearly see the existence of some underlying principle.

It was precisely this “leading principle”, the system of designing book pages in a specific way, that attracted the attention of a few more contemporary researchers who decided to delve into the subject in order to rediscover the mystery of old printers, which had been forgotten over the centuries.

Though largely forgotten today, methods and rules upon which it is
impossible to improve have been developed for centuries.
To produce perfect books these rules have to be brought to life and applied.

Jan Tschichold

So let’s start with what fascinated such curious researchers like Van de Graaf, Jan Tschichold and Raúl Rosarivo. Can you recognize any common traits in the way the page layout of the following books was designed?

Cumbria Timeless design principles - Van de Graaf (Golden) Canon 1 Consulting Services & Web Development
Peter Schöffer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cumbria Timeless design principles - Van de Graaf (Golden) Canon 2 Consulting Services & Web Development
Nicolas Jenson (printer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cumbria Timeless design principles - Van de Graaf (Golden) Canon 3 Consulting Services & Web Development
Lambert, von Heerenberg, d. 1499. Copulata super tres libros Aristotelis De anima iuxta doctrinam Thomae de Aquino.  Call number: HMD Collection, WZ 230 M772c 1485. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having examined many books that had been published within several decades of the Gutenberg Bible’s creation, Van de Graaf came to the conclusion that using only the simplest tools it was possible to reproduce a certain pattern, regardless of the proportions of the page and its size.

Using this system, the upper margin is always 1/9 of the page height and the inner margin is 1/9 of the page width.

Similar conclusions were reached a little later by Raúl Rosarivo. After a meticulous survey of many Renaissance works, he concluded that the so-called golden canon of page design involves splitting it into 9 equal parts, both horizontally and vertically.

In this illustration, apart from the grid dividing the page according to Raul Rosarivo’s guidelines, we see one more interesting thing – namely the height of the text block is equal to the width of the page! Such an incredible correlation occurs under the condition that the proportions of the page will be 2:3.

Here we come to the figure of Jan Tschichold, considered one of the greatest typographers of the 20th century. Not only did he arrive at similar conclusions as Van de Graaf and Rosarivo, but he also added the notion that the best proportions of the page are the previously mentioned 2:3.

In his book, “The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design” Tschischold writes:

(…) the key to this positioning of the type area is the division into nine pans of both the width and the height of the page [much like using Rosarivo’s canon]. The simplest way to do this was found by J. A. van de Graaf.

And elsewhere in the same book:

(…) the height of the type area equals the width of the page: using a page proportion of 2:3, a condition for this canon, we get one-ninth of the paper width for the inner margin, two-ninths for the outer or fore-edge margin, one-ninth of the paper height for the top, and two-ninths for the bottom margin. Type area and paper size are of equal proportions. … What I uncovered as the canon of the manuscript writers, Raul Rosarivo proved to have been Gutenberg’s canon as well. He finds the size and position of the type area by dividing the page diagonal into ninths.

Thus we can see, that when the new technology of the printing press was emerging, its pioneers of that time, such as Gutenberg, Nicolas Jenson and Peter Schöffer, had no doubt, that they should build on the foundations provided by medieval scribes, who passed from generation to generation the knowledge about how to design books of excellent proportions and harmony.

But what about our time? Does the golden canon belong to the past? Quite the contrary, it continues to be used not only in book design, but also in a completely new medium. Throughout the Internet we can find many amazing website designs based on the divisions of the golden canon. It turns out that with the help of such people as Van de Graaf, Raul Rosarivio or Jan Tschischold, modern designers can create interfaces that are not only subconsciously harmonious and pleasant in reception, but it also gives them a great opportunity to use a proven starting point for exploring the most creative styles – while maintaining a logical and proportionate structure of elements.

Why am I writing about this? I believe it is useful to summarise and describe, even briefly, some timeless rules that translate into the way we design here and now. Arrangement of elements on the page, selection of fonts, composition of a colour palette – even if we want to break the rules, it is better to do it intentionally.

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Paweł Targoński

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