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Concepts of scale and proportion have come down to us from the ancient Greeks, the mathematicians of the Renaissance and 20th century modernists like the architect Le Corbusier, who centered his design philosophy on concepts of harmony and proportion. Yet, classical proportions still make sense to us, we seem to have an innate sense of the “rightness” of scale and proportion, as well as an ability to interpret scale in terms of function and form.

Does the scale of an object feel right given its function and the context in which it lives? What does scale communicate? The length and width of a desk, its dimensions and proportions, may suggest appropriate uses—and also the status of the user. An over-scaled chair or sofa confers a heightened sense of drama and may convey authority. A trim, lightweight seat suggests a more dynamic mode, a chair that users will move around to suit changing tasks and activities. Thus, scale influences human behavior, prompting an action or reaction whether or not we have consciously interpreted the mathematics of scale at work.

Certainly scale, along with line and proportion, is a primary element of design, a detail that defines the character of an object and one of the key choices that is made in the process of design. The scale of the chair, the table or the lamp—or the relative scale of one of its components— makes the object distinct, expressive of its function and perhaps its spirit of playfulness or restraint. One need only consider the exuberance and wit with which a designer like Philippe Starck approaches scale with his high sided, throne-like sofas and dramatically over-scaled clocks to appreciate the expressive power of scale. At the same time, scale can be something simpler and more disciplined—the exact scale of the “bite” that distinguishes the Apple logo, the economical measure of a tabletop or the compact dimensions of a clock that is pared down to its essence, a clock that is only a clock and does not double as decor or status symbol.


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There are as many ways to write about design as there are ways to practice it. We can describe, analyze, compare, judge and classify; propose theories about creativity, form and social function. We can characterize design as a language or a way of thinking. Or, we can consider one key aspect of design, the detail. For while a detail may be small in scale—a button, a stitch, a latch, a molding—the subject is not a trivial one. The design detail carries larger concepts no matter its size. It may be less encompassing than the whole, but its meaning is not less deep. Detail makes design not only intelligible, but also memorable and meaningful. Download No Detail Is Small and explore it in detail.

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