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Understanding Design Basics:
Proportion and Scale

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

We recently purchased a new kitten.  ‘Tashi’ is 6 inches tall, making my husband more than 12 times taller.   Watching him negotiate his new surroundings is an interesting study in proportion and scale.  He needs smaller dishes so he can reach what is inside of them.  He prefers to safely peek out at us from smaller areas.   He plays with small toys – a beach ball would overwhelm him.  I can easily hold him in the palm of my hand.

Proportion is a ratio of a part to the whole with respect to magnitude, quantity, or degree. The term scale applies to design as something graduated and used as a means of measurement.  How do proportion and scale affect us?  How do we use these design basics to our advantage in the design of environments?  What drives us to make spaces small and cozy or large and grand when we have the option?  Have you ever returned as an adult to your childhood home and discovered it to be smaller than you remembered?

Spaces may be small due to limited budgets and may be marginally appropriate to their use.  Spaces may be larger due to an unlimited budget, but can still be inappropriate to its use, simply because it is out of scale to the users and the contents.  Compare how you feel when you are in your cozy den reading a book to visiting a large library.  Contrast your experience of being on your own patio to visiting a public garden.   Spaces are typically defined by their function; therefore some spaces are larger to accommodate more people or store more goods and equipment.   Our tendency is to create rooms within a larger space, usually for privacy.  Is it also possible that it might be to create psychological control of our environment?  Being in scale to one’s own environment has a direct effect on our psychological comfort.  When we feel dwarfed we might feel insignificant or powerless.  When we perceive we are in control, we are more comfortable and less anxious.

We all have a wall of “psychological space” around us.  People in different cultures need varying degrees of psychological space.  My experience of riding a crowded elevator in China several years ago was vastly different than riding a ‘crowded’ elevator in the United States.   Each of us also has our own degree of spatial comfort.  How does a tall ceiling in a small room make you feel? 

Proportion and scale also affect decisions about furnishings within a space – indoors or out.   A large armoire with massive detailing will overwhelm a small, delicate chair.  The armoire needs to be in proportion to its environment and the detailing of the armoire should be in scale to the other components of the room.  Leaves of plants surrounding a piece of art should contrast adequately to complement the art, but not overwhelm by being larger than the art itself. 

Contrast of scale and proportion leads me to the use of focal points.  A focal point is successful when it is in scale to its surrounding.  If it is too small, it will get lost in the space and cease to be a focal point.  If it is too large, it will overwhelm everything around it.    Color affects visual scale.  Dark colors create more visual weight.   If a pastel item feels too small, changing the color to vivid red will make it feel larger. 

The most frequent design mistake I see is the use of too many ‘focal points’.  There is no place for the eye to rest.  Often it is a result of not considering the scale of the area in which the items are used.  A small room or garden can only handle one or two “features” without becoming busy.  Appraise a space as objectively as possible – considering the entire space, not just a view in one direction.  Editing a space can be one of the most difficult things to do.  Where DO we put Aunt Betty’s antique plate and the children’s pictures? Putting everything in one space, just because we have them, diminishes the effect that each of them may have on their own.  So if you want that impressive piece of sculpture you brought back from your last vacation to be a real feature, remember to keep it in proportion and scale to its surroundings and it will be the focal point you hoped for. And if you have a new kitten, remember that your feet are as big as it is – at least if it hasn’t chewed your toes to the point of changing your shoe size.

UDB-Proportion and ScaleThe statue is in proportion and scale to the surrounding plants.



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