Introduction to Punctuation


Palladio suggested a rule of thumb for establishing the casing around a window opening. Divide the space into five or six equal parts, and use one-fifth or one-sixth as the casing.

This is an excerpt from “By Hand and Eye” by Geo R. Walker and Jim Tolpin.

Punctuation to Establish a Border
Punctuation acts like a visual warning track in a baseball outfield. As the outfielder races to catch a fly ball, the warning track signals that the field is about to end and the home-run fence is fast approaching. Punctuation tells the eye that one part is ending and another is beginning. Our eye doesn’t like to suddenly hit a wall or slip over a cliff. That’s why printers format a text with margins to make words easier to read. Borders help us locate transitions and play an important role. A door frame is a good example. It plays no functional role yet plays a vital visual role of highlighting the opening. Note that on a tall vertical space such as a window or door frame, we don’t use the height to establish our punctuation. That could result in a heavy band if wrapped all the way around. Tall vertical shapes (doors) are punctuated across the width (east and west), while long horizontal shapes (drawer fronts) are punctuated along the height (north and south).


We selected the border for one of the smaller drawers to punctuate all. That border ties all the others together in a unity.

This brings up another practical issue. A series of drawers, doors or spaces in the same composition with multiple sizes would call for different-sized banding or border elements for each space. Yet that’s seldom the case in built work. Select one door or drawer front from the mid-range and use it for all. It’s more important for all the composition to display a unity through similar borders. Graduated drawers that get larger toward the bottom of a case are a good example. If you choose to incorporate a punctuation with banding or inlay, work up a border for several of the smaller drawers and trust your eye to select which border will complement all.


Adding 1/6 to the height or width of a door opening is a way to tweak it to your eye. This double square was tweaked taller by adding 1/6 the width to the height. Period guide books described this as “two squares and a sixth.”

Tweaking a Design Using Punctuating Ratios
It used to frustrate me to hear someone with a creative bent opine about making the smallest tweak to hit some mythical sweet spot. Somehow they seemed to magically know that adding 1⁄4″ to the width of a door frame would spell Nirvana. I might agree that the door frame did seem to look better, but it all seemed like magical guesswork or voodoo. Part of clearing through the fog is to gain some understanding of how elements harmonize or punctuate. Using these principles, we can unpack examples to help develop that inner sense. Secondly, we need a practical approach to make small adjustments to an element or shape. We already established that a small series of simple ratios (1:2, 3:5, etc.) can cover a range of simple shapes to define a form. Classical designers often used punctuating ratios to make a small tweak. These are large enough to make a visual difference without looking forced. The top diameter of a column shaft is one-sixth smaller than the shaft diameter at the base. If we want to bump a square just a bit wider without making too dramatic a shift, we bump it just a little wider by one-sixth. A long 2:1 rectangle can be tweaked just a bit longer using a sixth of the width.


This principle applies to tweaking border elements. If 1:5 seems too bold, try 1:6, 1:7 or 1:8. We are always concerned that the border element has a relationship with element it’s linked with.

Meghan Bates

This entry was posted in By Hand & Eye. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Introduction to Punctuation

  1. tsstahl says:

    Literary gold. I’m in that book at least once a month. If you want to tickle your eyeballs, read Go The F**k To Sleep by Adam Mansbach. If you want to challenge and expand your mind with the building blocks of design, read By Hand and Eye.

  2. Excellent book. I also highly recommend the companion book, By Hound and Eye.

Comments are closed.