Understanding Aesthetics – Classical Rules of Design

Rules of Design – Your Answer to Everything

The following is from “The Right Way to Use Trim in Old Houses” – Old House Journal Feb/Mar 2013, written by Brent Hull. Click here for full article.

Doric TempleEver wonder why you like old houses? Maybe there’s a certain room from your grandmother’s house that evokes fond memories, but you can’t pinpoint why it was so special.

Often, the reason is because it was built and designed using classical proportions and scale, something lacking in modern houses. A century ago, builders, craftsmen, architects, and designers knew something that’s been mostly forgotten today: the rules of classical design.

Before the age of production houses, everyone involved in the craft of building homes understood and designed using classical rules on everything from porches to interior trim. Classical details were understood and natural, whether in a Georgian home or a Victorian mansion. In order to perform proper restoration work today, it’s important to understand these classical rules-they’re crucial to good design, and for getting missing details right in a historic house.

The classical rules of design and proportion were established by the Greeks and Romans, and reaffirmed during the Renaissance. The Greeks (and then the Romans) looked to nature and man as a model for design, discovering in both places a proportion so perfect they called it the golden ratio. It is best realized in the golden rectangle, a mathematical ratio of roughly 3:5. Our bodies are full of golden rectangles: the length of the hand to length of the forearm is one example. The height of your belly button to your total height is often a golden ratio.

The human body is an amazing proportional study of beauty and scale. The Greeks and Romans understood this and designed their proportioning system around it. Each of the five orders (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite) is based on a human scale, usually represented in the height and width of the column. For example, the very similar Tuscan and Doric orders have a 1:7 ratio, where one equals the column width and seven is the height. These orders are usually referred to as masculine because they have male proportions. . . . The Ionic and Corinthian orders are based on women’s bodies, with smaller proportions-1:8 and 1:9, respectively. . .

Vetruvius, the Roman engineer and writer of the only architectural book we have from antiquity, wrote about the gender-specific personalities of the different orders. One reason we feel so comfortable in classical rooms is because they are designed and laid out on a human scale. Often when we like a room and can’t explain why, it’s because it’s been laid out using these classical rules, making us feel naturally more comfortable there.

Psychology and Architecture – How Our Minds Really Work

As stated above, early Greek and Roman philosophers saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty which resulted in rules of design and proportion. Let’s take this one step deeper and see how these rules affect our conscious and subconscious mind.

What we see with our eyes interacts with our brains. That interplay dictates how our senses perceive what we are viewing and how we are affected by its beauty or lack of beauty. Scans of people’s brains show a strong emotional response to visuals based on proper aesthetic principles. Our subconscious mind knows what looks good and enjoys it. It knows good architecture. However our conscious mind is influenced by advertisements and is accustomed to seeing bad architecture.

The important thing to remember here is that our subconscious mind is hardwired to be stimulated positively or negatively to certain things. It does not discriminate. All our minds are the same.

Our conscious mind adapts to our lives and experiences and is based on taste, opinion, and brainwashing from external sources. We have a cloud in front of us we need to break through. When I say our subconscious mind knows good architecture, what it likes are shapes and patterns in proportion to each other. These shapes and patterns are based on nature and the human form and are demonstrated in the Classical Rules of Design and proportion.

Studies conducted by advertisers shows that when viewing a commercial the subjects said they enjoyed and rated very high, their brain waves showed the opposite – a low response. This proves that we may not actually like what we think we like.

For example, a test subject may say the out-of-proportion columns on a porch are beautiful. Their brain waves know the columns are out-of-proportion and even though the test subject responded positively, the brain waves responded negatively. This shows all of our brains are “wired” to recognize what is visually pleasing based on these fundamental design principles, even though they contradict the viewers stated preferences.

This is an example of being brain-washed or not taking the time for your mind to recognize positive signals from your subconscious mind. Everybody’s life is busy – if we’re not rushing around doing errands, we’re rushing home to watch I Love Lucy. People instead prefer to gravitate towards what’s popular and easy, which is why there is a need for this website.

What all this tells us is that choices can be made based on aesthetics – beauty perceived by all of our minds – NOT individual taste or opinion. Here is an article discussing this, “Scientists ponder beauty and the eye of the beholder. Evidence increasingly suggests the human brain is hard-wired for aesthetics”.

Design Concepts to Stimulate Your Subconscious

Studies show that from day one babies are attracted to patterns resembling a human face and body. The human body is reflected in architecture (Feet-Body-Head)=(Base-Shaft-Cap) of a column, as Brent Hull discussed earlier with the Rules of Classical Design and Proportion. Use this Classical Column as a guide to your design. This pattern should be found throughout a building in the facade, door and window casings, window placement, baseboard design, chair rail, kitchen cabinets, etc.

Scale and proportion (how one shape relates to another), is most important. Proportion errors are the most common mistakes made by contractors and homeowners. If proportions are not observed perfectly, the visual impression of the architecture will be flawed.

Porch railings, balusters, newel posts, columns, window casings, shutters, and architectural details are frequent victims of proportion errors today. Why? Because few builders understand or know about these rules of design, but convince you that “one size fits all”. Proportion is very important, but proportion by itself does not guarantee good architecture. The essential principles of architecture derive from regularity, symmetry, and a synthesis of all the other elements.

Here is a very good article with examples so you can really see the difference it makes. Read about well proportioned design.

The Golden Ratio (same as golden mean and golden rectangle – not the golden rule) discussed earlier by Brent Hull, is a fundamental law not only in architecture but innumerable other fields. It applies to the shape of windows and window panes, the arrangement of pictures on a wall, the layout of text on a page, a facial guide for plastic surgeons, etc.

Although you may not always have a perfect golden ratio with everything, the closer you get to it the more aesthetically pleasing it will be. Here’s more info on the Golden Ratio from the Fine Woodworking web site.

All these proportionally shaped patterns are then viewed and perceived as a whole. Perception is very important, because our minds perceive shapes and forms differently than from how they actually exist. Gestalt psychology explores how the mind forms or interprets patterns, similar to optical illusion games you have seen. Here is a site that explains Gestalt psychology in more detail.

There are many more principles from mathematics and geometry used in architecture to achieve beauty and curb appeal. The purpose here is to not make you an architect, but to provide a path for further research if you are interested; and emphasize the point, that following these principles make beauty more of a science, not personal taste. Everything we write about on OldHouseGuy.com is based on these principles. By following the examples throughout the Old House Guy website, your home will have the curb appeal it was designed to have.

To quote Steve Mouzon in his book Traditional Construction Patterns,

“Architecture crafted around these proportions would resonate with humans and with the universe. Therefore beauty in architecture is not an individualized concept changing from one person to the next but is based on certain timeless principles.”

These timeless principles have been abandoned by Modernists because of their fascination with new technology and search for novelty. This is explained in an essay by Charles Siegel, Architecture and Evolutionary Psychology.

Watch the following videos by Brent Hull for a quick and very informative lesson about understanding Aesthetics in design.

Part 1

Part 2

Shadows – The Finishing Touch

Whether it is a still life drawing on paper or a building on a street, all of the above rules of design come together and create shadows, producing new patterns that resonate deeply within us.

Shadows make buildings come alive. Most homes today look bland because architects and builders stopped looking at buildings as patterns in light and shade and had started seeing them as just a comfortable place to live. Unfortunately we accept and expect this. By noticing these changes, you will gradually train your eyes and not only see but feel how all the elements of a house work together, creating the beauty the building was designed to have.

The following is best stated by preservation architect and author Jonathan Hale, in his book, The Old Way of Seeing:

There was a time in our past when one could walk down any street and be surrounded by harmonious buildings. Such a street wasn’t perfect …, but it was alive. The old buildings smiled, while our new buildings are faceless. The old buildings sang, while the buildings of our age have no music in them.

The designers of the past succeeded easily where most today fail because they saw something different when they looked at a building. They saw a pattern in light and shade. When they let pattern guide them, they opened their ability to make forms of rich complexity. The forms they made began to dance.

A great building can give us the same exhilaration we experience in a natural landscape. We expect that of great buildings; but we tend to forget that a townscape of ordinary buildings, embodying the same principles, can also exhilarate us – exhilarate, and make us feel we belong.


They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but authentic details and materials based on fundamental principles of structure and proportion resonate with every eye. Dislike of a “remuddled” building – old houses with vinyl siding, new vinyl windows, thin or no window casings, over-done decoration, porch features not to scale, etc. are not a personal prejudice, but merely a recognition of a mental law by which we are all guided. So if you want true curb appeal- curb appeal that makes you want to stop and take the time to absorb a harmonious feeling -follow traditional architectural concepts.

For a much greater understanding of Architectural Concepts and Aesthetics in traditional architecture, I highly recommend Joffre Essley’s web site “House Design Coffee” where you’ll find an abundance of pertinent information. You would have to spend many hours reading difficult books to get the same information at Joffre’s site summarized in an easily readable style.

Here you will learn about Architectural Philosophy and how traditional architecture gave way to the Modernist movement. Principles of design such as Gestalt principles and the Golden Rectangle are discussed in more detail. Other information such as architectural styles are also discussed. To get started, check out his Architectural Concepts page.

Congratulations! Now that you have read this page your architectural knowledge is much farther ahead of not only most homeowners, but many architects and builders too. While this is only the tip of the iceberg, you are on your way to using aesthetics and achieving the best curb appeal. Please be sure to read the other pages with this knowledge for a better success with your house.