The notion of structure implies the ordering of elements into a co-ordinated whole. Information design has adopted ‘the grid’ as a method by which components of a design are brought into a formal relationship to one another. The grid is particularly associated with the work of pioneering modernist designers such as Jan Tschichold, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Wim Crouwel. Find images created by Tschichold, Müller-Brockmann and Crouwel. The grid, however, is a ubiquitous and utilitarian device unconstrained by associations with art and design movements. Anyone familiar with word processing or page make-up software programmes will be aware of the grid when making decisions about what goes where on the page. Grids are apparent in both man made and natural structures. Georgian architecture exploited a modular approach to the relationship between, and proportion of, windows and doors. The classic Georgian window has a unit structure of three horizontal panes of glass by four vertical panes. A pine cone or sunflower head is comprised of units making up its overall structure. The illustration below shows a geometric construction of a typical Georgian facade.
Efficient organisation of information and dramatic compositions
How things are arranged, grouped and ordered can influence the way they are perceived and read and as a consequence is often an aid to understanding. The designer needs to evaluate which layout best supports the information to be communicated. The grid is seldom visible; however, the way in which structure is employed can have a dramatic effect on the appearance of the overall design composition.
Evolving a grid structure: single to multi-column
The most basic grid structure is that of a single measure or column width. The measure is determined by the size of the margins. The reason for margins is to contain elements on a page and to prevent them from being inadvertently cropped off when trimmed. Non-crucial elements can often ‘bleed’ off the page as a feature. Placing critical information that is to be read too close to the edge of the page is not a good idea. A printer can only guarantee a certain amount of tolerance. Put a page number near the edge and it may get chopped off and in doing so a vital navigation device is lost. A single column grid would be appropriate for desktop published reports consisting mainly of text. Due to the relatively wide width a larger size of type and generous leading would be used.
One can further subdivide the measure or column width into the required number of columns or units if there are more complex requirements. Grids composing of 2,3 or 4 columns allow for: a smaller type size to be used; for pictures, graphics and diagrams of varying sizes; for captions to be set over a different measure to the main text; multiple alignments and tabulations. The space between the columns is known as the inter-column space or gutter. Each job requires a specific grid designed for its individual needs, however, one should not solely rely on the grid as this can leads to a sterile looking design.
Integrity of text
When considering using a grid the integrity of the text must be paramount. Forcing type, which contains information to be conveyed and read, into unnatural widths will provide a barrier to the accessibility of ideas the text contains. Royal Designer for Industry, Derek Birdsall famously implored designers not to ‘torture the text’. Too short or long a line length within text will tire the reader.
Analysis of text
A grid will become apparent once an analysis of the text to be structured has been undertaken. The designer and editor will consider heading structure, captions, pull-out quotes, text, paragraphs, page numbers, running heads and use of hanging line.
The same information can be treated differently depending on whether a two or three column grid is used. The designer will need to evaluate the relative advantages of each layout. A vertical grid can also be devised based on the lines of the text type, this allows for the top of a picture to align with the capital height and for the bottom of a picture to align with the baseline of a line of type. When vertical and horizontal grid structures are combined the page becomes divided into a ‘field’ of modules. The available design space is the field and the individual units are known as modules. The look of the design will become, by definition, modular. The illustrations below are from a 140mm square 12 page booklet I edited and designed. The square modules are equivalent to 6 lines of 8pt type on 10pt line feed. The space between is equivalent to a line space of the text. The design allowed for text to be set both horizontally and vertically and still relate structurally.
The freedom of the grid
Grids are useful for lengthy, complex documents and achieve a consistency and uniformity that allows the user easy access to the information. Not all designers like using grids, it is felt to be a restriction on their creativity, but there are occasions when the grid is essential, for example a daily newspaper. A grid provides some basic guidelines for work that requires a fast turn around and when it is not practical to design each page as a bespoke item. The design below is by Simon Esterson and Mark Porter and builds upon the pioneering work of David Hillman.
The grid as a way of understanding the world
Design academic Ray Roberts has suggested that grids act as ‘metaphors for the human need to make sense of the world and to position ourselves in control of it’. The grid can be seen as a method of shaping information so that it becomes more understandable and therefore enabling the user’s empowerment through accumulated knowledge.
Roberts L, The Designer and the Grid, Rotovision SA, 2002
Müller-Brockmann J, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Verlag Niggli AG, 1981
Bosshard H R, The Typographic Grid, Verlag Niggli AG, 2000
The Art of the Grid (website visited 20.12.09)