Design Series: Size/Scale

This is a companion post to Sandy’s podcast. Be sure and listen to our discussion.

Size and Scale are an element of design

Size and Scale are related terms


  •  “Size and scale are words used to describe the physical size that a shape or form has in comparison other shapes or lines within the design field.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide, pg.98)
  • “The size of a work in relation to humans; the size of the elements within the work in relation to each other.” (Art+Quilt, pg.64)
  • “Proportion relates to how shapes interact with each other within a design.” (Adventures in Design, pg. 74)
  • “‘Scale and ‘proportion’ are related terms that both basically refer to size. Scale is essentially another word for size.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
      • “‘Large scale’ is a way of saying big and ‘small scale’ means small.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
          • “Big is meaningless unless we have some standard of reference. A big dog means nothing if we do not know the size of most dogs. This is what separates the two terms,” size and scale. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
        • “Proportion refers to relative size, size measure against other elements or against some mental norm or standard.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
        • “…the scale of the pattern, that is, its size in relationship to the size of the pieces that are cut, will determine the impact of the pattern on the overall design of the quilt.” (Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg. 80)

        Here are some general dictionary definitions of the terms we used in the podcast that you can mull over in your mind:

    Size (Merriam-Webster online dictionary):

    • Noun
      1. The relative extent of something; how big something is.
      2. A gelatinous solution used in gilding paper, stiffening textiles, and preparing plastered walls for decoration.
      1. Alter or sort in terms of size or according to size: “some drills are sized in millimeters”.
      2. Treat with size to glaze or stiffen.
      Having a specified size; sized: “marble-size chunks of hail”.
      magnitude – extent – dimension – measure – bulk

      Scale (Random House College Dictionary): a succession or progression of steps or degrees; a graduated series; an arrangement of things in order of importance.

      Proportion (Random House College Dictionary): the comparative relation between things or magnitudes; a proper or significant relation between things or parts; relative size or extent.

      Ratio (Random House College Dictionary): the relation between two similar magnitudes in respect to the number of times the first contains the second.

      Using Size:

      • “The principle of scale in a work of art is all about the volume of the message you wish to send to your viewer.” (Art+Quilt, pg.64)
      • “The scale of a work of art in relation to the viewer, its human scale, is often” one of the first considerations an artist makes.” (Art+Quilt, pg.64)
        • where will it be displayed? the atrium of a large office building or the foyer of a private home? (Art+Quilt, pg.64)
      • Elements in a design that are larger seem close. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.176)
      • Elements of a design that are smaller seem farther away. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.176)
      • Elements of a design that are larger seem more important, conversely elements of a design that are smaller seem less important. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.176)
        • I don’t want you to get the idea that small is unimportant. A small amount of yellow in a purple quilt can make all the difference to the overall design.
      • “Scale and proportion are closely tied to  emphasis and focal point. Large scale, especially large scale in proportion to other elements makes for an obvious visual emphasis.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
      • “Unusual or unexpected scale is arresting and attention getting. Sheer size does impress us.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.61) Magnifying something that is usually quite small can capture your attention through sheer surprise. A butterfly wing that fills the entire frame gains significance as you see extraordinary details seldom noticed in everyday life.” (Art+Quilt, pg.65)
        • Georgia O’Keefe is an example of an artist that uses this technique. (Art+Quilt, pg.65)
      • “An unnatural contrast of scale in your quilts can also be used to achieve interesting effects. Surrealists such as Salvador Dali used wildly confused internal proportions to intentionally create uneasiness in the viewer. One element that is purposefully out of scale with other elements within the quilt will attract the viewer’s attention and become a focal point.” (Art+Quilt, pg.65)
        • if you want to exaggerate a shape, “have some visual continuity between the shapes.”(Adventures in Design, pg. 75)
      • Think about the relative sizes of pieces in a quilt. It is important to vary sizes to add interest. (Fearless Design, pg. 32)
        • think about piecing the same blocks in different sizes in order to add interest to your quilt.

Using Ratio

Using ratios really has to do with proportion. The Fibonacci sequence has to do with ratios of objects to one another on the design field. “One powerful way to help your design evolve to its highest potential is to select the width and height dimensions that promote the natural movement of your design….select your dimensions based on a ratio that best suits your design. Observing your design’s directional flow and focus gives you a starting point to sort through your options.” (Adventures in Design, pg. 77)

      • “1:1 ratio is a perfect ratio for designs that radiate symmetrically from a center point….if your design is 24″ high in this ratio, it will also be 24″ wide.” (Adventures in Design, pg. 77)
      • “A 1:2 ratio provides added width to a horizontal design or it extends height to a vertical design. In this ratio, the longer dimension is twice as long as the shorter dimension. If you want one dimension to be 24″ wide, the other dimension would be double that – 48″ high.” An example of this ratio is Poulnabrone Dolmen (Adventures in Design, pg. 77)
      • The 1:3 ratio provides more lengthwise extension than 1:2 ratio. “In this ratio, one dimension is three times greater than the other dimension. This gives more room for the design to expand in one direction. Thus if you want one dimension of your design to be 24″, the other dimension would be 72″.” An example is a quilt called Acid Rain by Gloria Loughman. This ratio has allowed a “dynamic sky to evolve in her quilt.” (Adventures in Design, pg. 77)
      • “A 1:4 ratio greatly exaggerates the length of a design. One dimension is four times greater than the other dimension. If you want your 24″ high design to have an extreme horizontal extension, the 1:4 ratio would give you a width of 96″.” An example is Rhododendrons over Water by Amanda Richardson of Cornwall England  (Adventures in Design, pg. 77)
      • ” The 3:4 ratio is best used when a design has only slightly more movement in one direction than the other. In a 3:4 ratio, a design that is 24″ in one direction would be 32″ high in the other direction”…. Joen Wolfrom says that “the 3:4 ratio should be saved for such occasions when your design does not need much expansion in one direction or the other.” Example is Ticondrroga Star by Larisa Key, Willimatic, CT. (Adventures in Design, pg. 77) I use this ratio quite a bit, especially for block quilts, because I think it adds interest to the layout.
      • “A 2:3 ratio allows for more extended directional movement than a 3:4 ratio does. It doesn’t exaggerate the length as much as the 1:2, 1:3, and 1:4 ratios do. ” (Adventures in Design, pg. 77) If you have 24″ high quilt, your quilt’s width would be 36″. (Adventures in Design, pg. 78) Example is Fishermen’s Widows by Anna Faustino
      • The Golden Mean or 8:13 ratio is considered to be “the most beautiful, pleasing dimension for art and architecture…It provides beautifully balanced dimensions”, because of the subtle dimensional change. “The Golden Mean is a component of the Fibonacci sequence.” (Adventures in Design, pg. 81)   If you have 24″ high quilt, your quilt’s width using the 8:13 ratio would be 39″. (Adventures in Design, pg. 78) You can find a calculator for Golden Mean ratios at: and there is a chart in Adventures in Design pg.81. An example of a quilt using the Golden Mean Ratio is Pamela Mostek’s Five Apples.


        • A designer can use relative sizes to give a feeling of space or depth. Artists have taken this basic idea and exaggerated it by increasing the size differences. It is very common to many periods and styles of art to use different scales. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.176)
        • “In past centuries visual scale was often related to thematic importance. The size of the figures was based on their symbolic importance in the subject being presented… This is called hieratic scaling.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
        • “Private spaces are perfect for small, intricately stitched works and allow for a more intimate experience with the art.” (Art+Quilt, pg.64)
        • “When your entire field of vision is occupied by a work of art you can’t help but pay attention to it. ” (Art+Quilt, pg.64) [ Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte]
        • “The most renowned proportional number sequence is the Fibonacci sequence“…”The Fibonacci sequence begins as 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. Each successive number in this sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers. You can use small or large sections of this sequence to determine the dimensions of elements within a design.”… “The Fibonacci sequence highlights the strong relationship between mathematics, nature and art. (Adventures in Design, pg. 76)

          Fibonacci sequence from
          Fibonacci sequence from

The images denoting the Fibonacci sequence are fairly common. I imagine you will say “oh, of course! I have seen this!” when you see the spiral. Nautilus shells are also used as examples of the Fibonacci sequence. As we mentioned in the podcast, nature uses the Fibonacci sequence in its design field frequently. By doing a search on the term and looking at images, you will be amazed at the trees, flowers and other natural phenomena that include the Fibonacci sequence.




Design Basics, 5th, c.1999, David A. Lauer, Stephen Pentak

Golden Ratio Calculator:

Painting by Numbers: the Fibonacci sequence in art by Curtis Belmonte and Conor Pappas