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“Nothing to Excess” -carved into the front of the temple at Delphi.
Without getting too geeky, the golden mean or golden ratio is simply a mathematical formula that dictates proportions that are found throughout the natural world and believed to be the foundation of what we find to be aesthetically pleasing. Many artists, sculptors and architects since before the Renaissance have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio. From the leaf of a fern spiral and its relationship to the other leaves on that same curved stem, to the arms of a spiral galaxy, these proportions can be found everywhere.
Thinking Out of the Box
In web design we are often limited by the use of boxes or box shaped areas that become containers for information, but that does not mean that the placement and proportions of these boxes can not utilize the mathematics that so greatly influence the harmony and balance of organic shapes. The functional structure of data is the king of everything in web design, but all of the header, sidebar, footer and main content areas can be laid out in a way the embraces the golden mean and detailed with graphics that have some semblance of the visually captivating, organic detailing of the natural world.
Symmetry Can be Boring
There is a time a place for symmetrical design. Sometimes it is the best way to wrangle in unruly content (an even number of columns in uniform widths, for example), but often times it is not the most visually interesting solution. A layout that is close to symmetrical (in that is doesn’t have a huge chunk of content on one side and then a slim cramped sidebar but instead maintains proportions closer to the golden ratio) will channel content in a way the provides a visual hierarchy. It is important that is not too out of balance yet is also not purely symmetrical.
Finding a Happy Medium
Creating captivating visuals doesn’t have to mean sacrificing functionality, and a data heavy site with a great deal of functionally does not necessarily have to be visually boring in order to be usable. With proper planning, a happy medium can be established that communicates information with a efficient hierarchy that allows the user to effectively engage with the content. You do not want overwhelmed users having to struggle to sort information on their own, but at the same time you do not want to bore them or not provide enough information. Nothing to excess; everything in moderation.
If you are looking for a design resource that helps you implement the golden mean into layouts check out the ever-famous 960 grid system – complete with Photoshop plugins.