Visual Literacy III: Proportion

Some call it composition, others call it ratio, I’ve decided to call it proportion. The way things are placed in proportion with relation to each other determines not just their power relationships, but their aesthetic value.

Proportion determines, whether we like it or not, whether you are pretty or otherwise.

Take for example, the two women whom I consider as among the top classical beauties of the past 50 years:


Monica Bellucci, with relatively little Photoshop touchup done on this pic. Still a babe though!


Cherie Chung, a picture from the 80s. Photoshop didn’t exist then, so yes, her skin really looked this good as airbrushes could only do so much then. 

Both are from different sides of the world, yet they share largely the same facial traits that made them incredibly famous in their respected hemispheres.

Note the following:

1. The length of their eyebrows, and how they frame the eyes

2. The size, shape, width of the lips, and their distance from the nose.

3. The relative size of the nose, versus the distance between the eyes.

Okay, this may seem biased to people who fit the Monica/Cherie mould, but as scientific studies have shown, there is apparently a Golden Ratio of 1.68 that works across most objects and architecture.


 Leonardo Da Vinci’s illustration from De Divina Proportione applies geometric proportions to the human face. (Wikipedia)


So it’s not just faces we should be concerned with when it comes to visual literacy and proportion. We have to be able to discern when architecture is out of whack, when cars are badly designed, or when furniture that we are buying will not fit in proportion to the rest of the house design.

Let’s take cars for example.

Why does a Toyota Corolla Altis, in my opinion at least, look better than a Vios?

corolla 20front

Corolla Altis



Both share very similar design lines, but in order to squeeze the Vios down to a smaller capacity, the overall proportions took a hit too. Given the shape of the Vios windscreen and side windows, I feel that front portion is not long enough. The boot has also been reduced.

The result is that the Vios, although still a very capable car in its own class, looks too cramped and constricted from the exterior. Nothing wrong with it in the real world sense, but from an aesthetic point of view, the Vios could really do with a less obvious physical compromise.

Disclaimer: I own an Altis, but I’d rather own a Camry 😀

So what do other car makers do when faced with such a scenario? The VW guys know this best – make the same compromises the key design element:

VW Beetle

When you can’t beat them, accentuate them!

You would be surprised to find out how much work goes into the design of everyday items to ensure proper proportions, both in colour and other visual elements, exist to meet specific goals:



See how red and white are carefully proportioned to drive certain messages. Coke has a dominance of red to probably drive excitement/fun/fizz, and the white colour is used to highlight the cursive fonts more than anything else. Colgate, on the other hand, uses more white to possibly drive motivation to get your teeth cleaner, and the red is used to anchor the white element. So you’ll never see a yellow Colgate tube!


The same goes for interior design too.

In 2003, me and my sis Joanne decided to overhaul the Bishan flat, and here’s how our original kitchen looked – very 80’s, very generic, and very boring.

old kitchen

Our Bishan kitchen (1986 – 2003) 

I had a big headache trying to visualise how to redo the kitchen, and took a crash course in 3D software to come out with this:


Note that the proportion and placement of various items are all very deliberate. A black floor (easier to clean) and black Corian kitchen top, requires a large amount of bright tiles to prevent the kitchen from looking too constricted.

I also chose metal finishings for the wall cabinets to reflect more light and reduce the impact of the black floor tiles. The red colour was meant to anchor the entire colour scheme down and provide a visual focus and identity to the design. White portions (the sink and the washing machine) are simply used to expand the visual palette from three colours to four)

And here’s what the kitchen looked like after renovation, (very close to my 3D model). The floor is actually much blacker lah, as it wasn’t washed yet in this photo.

27sep (2)

But till today, I’m not entirely satisfied with the proportions of the kitchen. The hanging cabinets are too long and reduce the "airiness" of the setup. It’s not the best looking kitchen on earth, but the proportions are both practical and aesthetic.

That ends this chapter of Visual Literacy!

2 Replies to “Visual Literacy III: Proportion”

Comments are closed.