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» Professional creative+technical solutions for web and print
– enabling organisations and small businesses to start up fast, develop well.

Discovering design's 'x factor'

In the '90s, tools started appearing that allowed people with untrained hands – like myself – to get down and dirty with graphic design.

Having gained confidence after several years of typesetting and creating simple layouts with PageMaker, I felt ready to take on the more visual possibilities offered by Adobe Illustrator and, eventually, to tackle the learning curve that is Photoshop. While I became technically quite proficient through daily use in the ad agency, I didn't have formal design training like the real artists (or ‘wrists’) who hung around the studio – and I realised I probably wasn't blessed with a ‘natural eye’. The creative process was hit and, mostly, miss as I spent far too much time experimenting with new possibilities while there were deadlines to meet. I longed to be able to just feel and know when a page layout, or logo element, was just…right. I even imagined there was some secret design key that I could discover to unlock the talent.

To my amazement, pretty soon the universe gave me the essential piece of software I'd been missing – and it was the simplest of code. In fact, you could boil it down to just one number. Over 15 years later I still marvel at its power and application.

In a future article, I will delve into different ways of getting to know this 'x factor' – including its relationship with organic growth, Renaissance art and special numbers like 5, 12 and 108 – however, one way of putting it is this:

x + x2 =1

Words for it include 'the golden mean ratio' and 'phi'. Or, you could say it expresses 'natural harmony'.

In any case, these days, just like a real artist I set up my Photoshop canvasses with x-factor guides in place. Although I enjoy working out the positions for these in my head, I've also developed a simple tool that can be used to check the golden mean proportions of an existing image.

It can be used very easily in any programme that supports layering two images on top of each other (i.e. Word as well as Adobe design software)

The tool:



  1. Click on the image above to open it at full size. Then, control-click and choose to save it to your hard drive (as 'GMtool.gif').
  2. Open the image you want to check, or place it in a Word document.
  3. Place 'GMtool.gif' as a new image, or layer, over the top of the image you opened. Distort it as necessary so that it's exactly the same size as the underlying image.
  4. The inner blue lines give the main GM (Golden Mean) ratios; the outer blue lines give a second GM ratio.


The tool can also be used to help design something new, e.g. a garden plan…


To test the tool, I used a photograph that I'd taken myself (since reproductions are often slightly cropped, distorting the ratios). I chose a painting by Chagall, being an artist who has always positively exuded 'x factor' for me.

The original photo was taken at a good distance but from a low angle…

chagall original

So I corrected that distortion first in Photoshop:

chagall plain

I then brought in the tool ('GMtool.gif') as a new layer, and stretched it to exactly the same size:

chagall GM

So, did Chagall use a similar grid to help define his composition? I think the answer is certainly yes, at least intuitively if not drawn under the paint. In particular, I am struck by the connection between the eyes, nose and mouth of the seated angels and the containment of the strong shapes.

What do you think?

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