Major and Minor

When my son was just entering college we took a road trip up to Michigan just to hang out and see some new country. One of the highlights was a chance visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes on western shoreline. I wasn’t prepared for the vista. Towering vertical sand dunes that plunged far down to a distant beach. We stood on a board walk with signs warning not to make the foolish attempt to descend the steep sandy bank. That became even more apparent when a speedboat shattered the silence far below. The boat looked like a small water bug and gave the eye a true sense of how massive the dunes really are.  It was both breath taking and somehow a bit unnerving. Without the boat to give some contrast it was difficult for the mind to process this vast spectacle.

            I think a lot about how contrast is employed in design and how we respond to it. Traditional design tends to avoid a grid and instead favors using contrast or a hierarchy.

You can divide a simple shape equally, but using major and minor elements creates a more interesting composition.

It seems at first blush to be counterintuitive. We are creatures that like order and lining up identical sized objects seems to make sense, at least on the surface. I’m reminded of something I read by C.S. Lewis where he pointed out that reality is often very different than what we might imagine at first blush. He used the solar system as an example. Our mind may imagine a neat orderly arrangement of planets circling the sun, but the reality is a hodge podge of different sized globes traveling in elliptical orbits. Orderly yes, but not fitting into a neat grid by any means.

            For centuries designers have recognized that using major and minor elements is a way to help our eye take in a design. They employed this concept of major and minor in the larger elements of a form down to composing the smaller elements in a carving or molding.

Can you see how this molding profile uses major and minor?

 Frequently on period work the contrast is created using simple whole number ratios like 3:4 or 2:3. Take the time when looking at furniture you enjoy to see how the design makes use of major and minor elements. When you look at a really great carving, notice how the elements may be broken up into major and minor. Even inlay looks more pleasing when the different bands of color contrast in width. Any one have thoughts on why we find this major and minor appealing?

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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10 Responses to Major and Minor

  1. rgdaniel says:

    The first thing that came to my mind was to wonder if this pattern is somehow connected to the beating of out own heart, which is kind of a two-part, major-minor affair… LUB-dub, LUB-dub…. so that kind of pattern resonates at the most fundamental level…

    • walkerg says:

      Interesting observation. Part of me wonders if there isn’t some (or many) connections with the natural world that as you say resonates.


  2. Brian Meeks says:

    This was a great post.

    When I was little, we visited the Sleepy Bear Dunes too. It was good fun.

    I think the point about Major and Minor is valid and will help me in my own designs.


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  4. Chuck Nickerson says:

    Our minds like order, so perhaps major-minor allows us to imply progression, which is also a kind of order. It would be interesting to construct examples of major-minor that aren’t progressive, to see if they’re jarring in some way. These kinds of questions are why I’m sorry to miss your class this year in Port Townsend. Perhaps in 2011 somewhere.

    • walkerg says:

      I’m dissapointed about the Port Townsend Class also, would have been a fun and inspirational week. I’m hoping we can make something work in 2011.


  5. Terry OD says:

    In graphic design, the use of major/minor, hierarchy, and progression — are often used to start the viewer to read the most important information first, and to progress in the intended order. I suppose that could be used in, say, architecture – to catch your eye with the most important portal first, and to leave minor ones for later.

    When used for an application where the relative importance of elements is not a factor, it could be that just avoiding the monotony of regularity has certain value. One theory is that a composition is more dynamic if one or some elements attract your attention first, and those then lead your eye around to lesser elements, possibly in a progression controlled by the artist/designer — rather than your first glance telling you that there is much regularity and hence no further inspection is necessary.

    • walkerg says:

      I appreciate your insight on this. I might add, although the word hierarchy is often used to describe it, the sense is that contrasting elements compliment more than dominate/submit. Somehow the major element has more impact when a minor element completes it.


  6. egroeg says:

    I think it can be explained with two words–binocular vision. We perceive depth because of our binocular vision. A painting is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional view. If you consider paintings that were done which did not employ perspective, they seem flat and unrealistic. Paintings which used perspective display an illusion of depth and seem more realistic and more interesting or pleasant to look at. Consider any number of similar objects. Ones that are farther away from the viewer appear smaller, while the ones closer appear larger. Therefore, I think that in a piece of furniture, if some elements are larger than similar elements it would seem to accentuate a feeling of depth and make the object more interesting to look at. Similar illusions of depth can be created with color and shading.

  7. sdwing says:

    For me, the appeal of the major-minor proportion has to do with its asymmetry. The square divided in half is static, and we are not. We human creatures are dynamic at our core, from the electrons in our atoms that vibrate at some absurd speed of 600 mph to the fantastic movement going on all the time inside us any time we choose to look. Visual patterns of asymmetry reflect that movement and dynamism. It’s natural, like “home,” which is why it pleases me…

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