Dilation – Design Strategy Blog


What is Dilation?

Most simply, things that change size without changing proportions.

Google Earth and Google Maps are dilation technologies, because their images change size but, not relative proportions. This technology is also called morphological image processing. From Wikipedia:

“Morphological image processing is a collection of techniques for digital image processing based on mathematical morphology. Since these techniques rely only on the relative ordering of pixel values, not on their numerical values, they are especially suited to the processing of binary images and gray scale images whose light transfer function is not known.
Some morphological operations are:
Distance transform
By combining these operators one can obtain algorithms for many image processing tasks, such as feature detection, image segmentation, image sharpening, image filtering, and granulometry.”

All of these listed terms could be used to describe dilation, though pruning, erosion and skeletonization might not maintain proportion relationships. Microscopes and telescopes are image dilation tools.

Dilation is also a simple non mathematical partitioning of any space.

Dilation can also be self incrementing.

Dilation is systemic and thus, self referring.

Dilation is scale tool. Zero to infinity. It is a similarity transform.
Dilation is a comprehensive design strategy of it’s own merit.
Dilation is easy to learn and do. Five easy steps.
Divine Proportion” is one dilation of many.


Divine proportion is our first clue that dilation is a powerful design strategy.

Because divine grid squares flow down hill along a spiral, like water down a drain, eventually arriving on infinity’s door step at exactly the same place as Euclid’s imaginary points live and because, all dilations exhibit exactly the same disappearing to infinity tendency, dilations deserve a closer look.

Though a dilation diagram doesn’t look like much more than an empty cob web at first glance, it’s strategic use offers far more rewards than grids alone could ever.


A dilation has a center and is constructed entirely of harmonious spirals that don’t lose harmony when stretched or reshaped.

For a designer, they are a dream come true.

A dilation can be assigned any proportion and this won’t change internal metrics and, important to remember, dilations don’t need right angles; that means any given space is just fine.


By internal metrics I mean the # of units regardless of proportion remain constant and each unit will tile to fill the entire space. What this means is you won’t see a grid unless you want or need to. When using this strategy grids become secondary as most needs are satisfied by finding points on the Z axis rather the x, and y, axis. Another way of thinking about this is to imagine that your grid will scale to your work. This is more in tune with how objects, such as text boxes, are actually made by drawing ( dragging ) them out along the Z axis.


Think SVG ( scalable vector graphics ) or grid “squares” that stretch to fit the given task. Within such an environment, because there is always an harmonic spiral, proportions can’t be lost.


With dilation strategy grids remain present, but latent.


The grid units you don’t ordinarly see, and don’t actually need everywhere, are metrics of a given dilation. If we leave those grids in a latent state ( but not lost ) we can take full advantage of a far more versatile tool. A tool that gives us more information about our design space and by this reduces the amount of work we do to find or “create” information we need.

The best way to begin designing in a dilation space is to think of a matrix of dots that when connected reveal many of the things we need to know. Check out this sample page to get an idea of how much work can be reduced by simply draging out a text box between two dots. The five easy steps.


Though dilation strategy didn’t start in life with graphic designers in mind, there are good reasons other than time saving tricks, of which there are many, to deploy this strategy. Dilation as a comprehensive strategy is portable across diverse fields. For one of many examples, the metrics of font design space are present above and not only font metrics, but also proportions for a gradient of font sizes, though not immediately obvious.

Internal font metrics:

Html font point size gradient:

Of course, you may not be interested in 7 point sized font stuff, but, because the Z axis is a scale axis, size ( in this case anyway ) dosen’t really matter.




We can be certain space organized it’s self long before Euclid’s imaginary grid came along, but, if galaxy and storm making isn’t your thing, maybe making carpets is. In most cases Dilation Strategy “dovetails” very well with actual or theoretical prior arts.

Prehistory pattern making that archaeologists and anthropologists call iterative or fractal derived, simply describe two qualities of dilation.



Any space within a dilation can be a new dilation or “fractal” or “iteration” or “child” copy of the original like a holograph.


Meaning, navigation can be very complex or very simple.

Image from a neolithic ceramic seal.



Tangram as dilation:


After a bit of experience with dilation spaces novel harmonies can be made by moving the, so called, centre anywhere you like.

One way of thinking about this type of dilation dynamic is analogous to “bending a note” on a stringed instrument to a higher note, but instead of hearing sound change you see the shifting harmonic. In this simplest example, the central point A of a 0.5 dilation is “pushed” to some new location on one of the Z axis, introducing a new dynamic to the image or design space.

By simply adding new terms to the diagram, those familiar with perspective drawing will recognize that the “vanishing point” and “station line” have only moved to the right (or left) on the “horizon line” which is now higher on the “picture plane”. Changing lingo doesn’t change the design space.

Change lingo again, and consistently modify a font family or any other sort of glyph.

dilation font

Because, any shape can be a dilation, it is easy to understand why grids alone are needlessly design restrictive.



If you are a crystallographer you will be into cleavage and symmetry and your lingo will be numbers with comas, but, your design space will be the same as anyones.


Gem cutters then will think in similar ways with different terms.

Like all space, design space is not measurably altered by specialized lingo and so this strategy is flexibly portable across a wide diversity of design endeavor.

By now, most will have noticed the cardinal compass points; probably earliest human navigation aid, and certainly the most widely taught system for managing relationships in any real or abstract space.

What’s in the book?

A comprehensive strategy.


Allen Patten

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