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 Subliminal Design Revealing the Grid

Charlie Francis

 Subliminal Design Revealing the Grid


Attn: Copyright Agent 580 California Street, Suite 300 San Francisco, CA 94104 © 2018 BLURB, INC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without prior permission in writing from the publisher. PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


Charlie Francis


Charlie Francis EDITORS

Tony Venne Maureen Weiss PRIMARY TYPEFACES

Aktiv Grotesk, designed by Dalton Magg Neuton, designed by Brian Zick PRINTED BY

Blurb, Inc


Bon Champion Maria Habib Giselle Lewis-Archibald Sandie Maxa Elizabeth Sprouls Tony Venne Maureen Weiss Post-Bac Class of 2018




The Grid System: Building a Solid Design Layout Principles of Design: Bringing Order to Chaos with Grid Systems Grid Systems in Graphic Design HISTORY



Are Grid Systems Still Relevant in Digital Product Design? History of the Design Grid 2-DIMENSIONAL GRIDS




Modular Design: The Complete Primer for Beginners Thinking With Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students Better Grid Systems in UI Design Tools 3-DIMENSIONAL GRIDS



The Ideas of Le Corbusier: On Architecture and Urban Planning Stripes, Grids, and Checks GRIDDED IDENTITIES

42 44

Grid Systems in Graphic Design Branding and the Importance of Consistent Design



A grid, in its simplest meaning, is a structure. Grids are the underlying principle that guide form and function. They are an excellent way to structure information in all forms of design, including graphic design, architecture, industrial design (product and furniture design), interior design, as well as certain areas of art. Grids, however, are not an invention of man. Rather, they were always here and can be found everywhere we look. Grids are a phenomenon of the natural world, existing long before designers started using them in their work. Now, they can be found everywhere from the streets we walk, to this very book you’re reading. In following pages you will discover the subliminal structure we interact with everyday as the grid is revealed.

The grid system: Building

a solid design layout, Mads Soegaard, February 5, 2018


ne of the easiest ways to achieve an organized design is to apply a grid system. It’s a tried and tested technique that first found favor in print layout. Low-tech and cheap, this is a great resource for you as a designer —consider it a top-ten tool in your office. Grids in interactive design can also help provide a consistent experience across multiple devices with different screen sizes. Users are happy when they see familiar features laid out as they would expect to find them. The grid system helps align page elements based on sequenced columns and rows. We use this column-based structure to place text, images, and functions in a consistent way throughout the design. Every element has its place that we can see instantly and reproduce elsewhere. Consider the grids we find in maps. Islands, towns, lakes will appear on an exact part of a map, on a set of North-South/East-West coordinates. They will always appear in the same place on other maps.


A GPS accesses these coordinates to help guide us; imagine the chaos if there were no grid system for it to latch on to and keep us right on the road! The grid system was first used to arrange handwriting on paper and then in publishing to organize the layout of printed pages. Given that the printed page and the virtual page have much in common,it should come as no surprise that we also use it in web and app design. Creating a grid system for the virtual page is a little more complex than for the physical page—browsers handle information differently, and screens vary in size. Happily, however, the principle remains the same. That’s not to say that there’s no resistance to using the grid system. Some designers feel that the grid limits creativity. While this may be true, it’s important to recognize that many designers employ the grid system regularly because it is so effective at organizing information. The best layout is one which provides no distraction from the content. Thanks to its mathematical precision, the grid system is a great example of this kind of layout.

The Grid System has been helping artists of all types (including writers) for a long time. First utilized by a 13th century artist, who merged it with the golden ratio, the grid system has been a tried, tested, and trusted methodology for centuries. It firstly empowered writers to position their handwriting neatly on paper; later on, it became a universal standard in the publishing industry. Publishing houses everywhere retain strict observance of the grid system in producing copy that users find both pleasing to the eye and in line with what they would expect to see. Regarding setting out elements, grids afford superb precision. We can see this principle most prominently in maps, noting how locations are pinpointed with grid lines that represent coordinates. The pursuit of accurate cartography would enable navigators to discover new places in the great unknown parts of the world. Now, with the grid lines that mark both longitude and latitude, GPS devices allow us to get wherever we wish to go. However, cartographer’s maps represent fixed “designs” that change only imperceptibly over many years. Cartography might be a science, but grids, with their mathematical precision, are brilliant and much-needed tools of artists, too. Throughout history, artists have been making use of grid lines to plan and paint images of their own, which capture the best, most pleasing proportions. Easy to create and practically free of charge, grids also give us web and app designers the ability to lay out our work in an organized and precise manner. By enabling us to insert elements in boxes created by their intersecting lines, grids enable us to make a consistent user experience across multiple devices. For example, the dimensions and layouts of our computer and smartphone screens differ. Planning our work so that it can adjust to appear on different platforms keeps our designs intact, in proportion and in the places where our user expects to find them. Designers use columns and rows, shaped according to set column width and row height proportions (such as 3:2 or 4:3), and gutters (the spaces between these “boxes”) to present elements of our designs in the best way. Although we have the luxury of very high

The Golden ratio is a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

Photographers use grids to create balance and hierarchy of composition. This is called the Rule of Thirds.

screen resolutions that allow us to show evermore impressive and realistic designs, by using a grid based on a width of 960 pixels, we can make sure that our designs will translate properly to be displayed on many computer screens and mobile devices such as cell phones. However, we have a wealth of resources at our disposal to help us fine-tune our choice of grid system to match the design we want. However you use the grid system to build your design, you should keep in mind other principles, such as the Golden Ratio. Aiming to create a consistent user experience also involves creating a pleasing user experience that will be consistent across many devices. If you keep in mind that your choices will be working in concert with the known tendencies of the user’s eye, you will be able to create eye-catching designs that are better organized, as seen by your users on computer, tablet, or cell phone screens.



Principles of Design: Bringing Order to Chaos with Grid Systems, Simon Martin, October 25, 2016


n graphic design, as in architecture, the guts of a finished product are held up by an underlying support structure that—more often than not—is invisible to the viewer, but can just as easily make or break a design. While architectural masterpieces ranging from the Empire State Building to the Centre Pompidou make use of steel beams to hold a building design together, graphic designers use a similar structure for the page called a grid system—or more simply, a grid. At its simplest, a grid system is a series of evenly spaced blocks that help the designer organize and structure their designs in a way that is optimized for the visual flow of information. As a result, working with grids saves the designer time and enables a number of other benefits ranging from more seamless team collaborations to enhancing a visual hierarchy. Like many other early examples of design and layout, the earliest traces of the grid system can be traced back to the ancient Greeks—particularly, the golden section. Derived from the golden ratio, the golden section has been used over the past


two-thousand years in art, architecture, and design as a way to produce the most visually satisfying of all geometric forms. This method of providing visual harmony was later applied to some of the earliest handwritten manuscripts to balance text on a page—particularly early religious scriptures produced by scribes. As demand for books steadily increased, so did the number of variations for type layout as interpreted by those creating the books laboriously by hand. When the Industrial Revolution took off in the late 18th century, mass production gave way to more refined print production processes which ultimately gave way to the birth of graphic design. As machines churned out products as fast as humans could make them, the need to stand out in the marketplace became a growing importance. As a result, graphic design surged as print production took off and became the ideal medium for communication as the general public became increasingly more literate and sensitive to design. Over the next century, advances in print production continued to rise with the introduction of new

printing technologies and designs—most notably the Arts and Crafts Movement led by author and publisher William Morris. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s when a new generation of artists, designers, and thinkers began to truly question the relevance of conventional page layout and look elsewhere for new forms and philosophies. During this time, the De Stijl and Bauhaus movements in Europe helped usher in a new way of thinking about art, design, and writing—particularly as they were inspired by the idea of functionalism. As this new function-based approach to design worked its way over to the printed page, layout elements began to follow suit as simple designs and clean use of typography became the new standard in graphic design. However, it wasn’t until the end of World War II that grid-based graphic design really began to take off with the introduction of the Swiss International style led graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann. Heavily inspired by the function-forward design ideals established during the De Stijl and Bauhaus movements before they were sidelined due to

World War II, Müller-Brockmann went on to create a body of work over the following decades that employed the use of grid systems to guide simpleyet-effective designs. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that Müller-Brockmann created what is perhaps his most widely-known piece of work. In that year, the designer effectively condensed thousands of years of layout evolution into a digestible layout guide for a new generation of graphic designers—including those that would go on to create many of the most iconic logos and other graphic designs of our time. Considered to be one of the most influential books in the history of design, Grid Systems in Graphic Design: A Visual Communication Manual for Graphic Designers, Typographers and Three Dimensional Designers was the first text of its kind to establish design principles based on organized grid systems. To this day, even the most modern digital design tools and web frameworks incorporate layout tools that follow the grid system principles outlined by Müller-Brockmann in the book. But just as important as it is to understand how we’ve arrived at grid Grids are found even in nature in instances of honeycomb structures, and the golden ratio found in growth patterns of shells.



systems to provide crystal-clear frameworks for our content, it’s equally as important for designers to understand how and why to use them. “As a designer, the grid is a great starting point for my work,” explains Julia Sloane, a New York City-based graphic designer. “The grid—for me—serves as a guide, but not an absolute. I think every designer can find a different solution within the grid based on the individual project needs to create a clear product while working with their own personal style.” Without a doubt, the most valuable reason to use a grid system in a modern design is that it brings order to chaos and provides a nearly fail-proof way to keep your content organized. While there is an art to understanding grid systems in such a way that you can bend the rules and play within the boundaries, the key is to organize images and text in such a way that it communicates a design effectively. Working within the constraints of a grid can also speed up the designer’s workflow—both in the time it takes to create a final piece as well as communicating design intent to other designers. Similar to how an architect might approach the bare bones of a building structure differently if he or she already knew the constraints they were working in, the same holds true for graphic designers. Finally, working with grid systems can help balance your designs and enhance visual hierarchies with mathematical precision that is proven to be the most aesthetically rewarding for your viewer. After all, the greatest painters and photographers in the history of the world have employed the use of golden ratio-based grid systems for centuries. “In my opinion, graphic design has two roles,” says graphic designer Martin Flores, also of New York City. “First, graphic design should organize data in a way that makes it easy for the user to understand. Second, graphic design should reward the user for paying attention. Grids are a tool that help accomplish both of these goals.” But perhaps most importantly, while grid systems can be helpful for building out and enhancing layouts with clever design, they are just one tool among many that should both be considered and used creatively with restraint.

Grids are used in architectural drawings to create even and consistent mathematical ratios.

Even urban planners use grids to determine the placement of structures and roads, and to provide people with the convenience of getting around easily without losing their sense of place.


Architects especially use grids to create structures beyond just foundations.



Grid Systems in Graphic

Design, Josef Muller-Brock-

mann, 1981; 12th Edition, 2017

“Grids can organize a mass amount of information into something understandable and legible while also establishing a pattern for the user to follow,” adds Flores. “Sort of like establishing rules for a game. And games are most fun when you do really clever things within the rules. Grids are the same way.” Whether you’re developing the UI for a website or an app, creating the spread for a magazine, sketching out a poster design, or simply just want to create a visually harmonious doodle, the key is to approach the grid as a strong suggestion—but not as a standard. “The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee,” wrote Müller-Brockmann in Grid Systems in Graphic Design. “It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.”



 he use of the grid as an ordering system is the expression of a certain mental attitude inasmuch as it shows that the designer conceives his work in terms that are constructive and oriented to the future. This is the expression of a professional ethos: the designer’s work should have the clearly intelligible, objective, functional and aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking. His work should thus be a contribution to general culture and itself form part of it. Constructive design which is capable of analysis and reproduction can influence and enhance the taste of a society and the way it conceives forms and colours. Design which is objective, committed to the common weal, well composed and refined constitutes the basis of democratic behaviour. Constructivist design means the conversion of design laws into practical solutions. Work done systematically and in accordance with strict formal principles makes those demands for directness, intelligibility and the integration of all factors which are also vital in sociopolitical life. Working with the grid system means submitting to laws of universal

validity. The use of the grid system implies the will to systematize, to clarify the will to penetrate to the essentials, to concentrate the will to cultivate objectivity instead of subjectivity the will to rationalize the creative and technical production processes the will to integrate elements of colour, form and material the will to achieve architectural dominion over surface and space the will to adopt a positive, forward-looking attitude the recognition of the importance of education and the effect of work devised in a constructive and creative spirit. Every visual creative work is a manifestation of the character of the designer. It is a reflection of his knowledge, his ability, and his mentality. The grid is used by the typographer, graphic designer, photographer and exhibition designer for solving visual problems in two and three dimensions. The graphic designer and typographer use it for designing press advertisements, brochures, catalogues, books, periodicals, etc., and the exhibition designer for conceiving his plan for exhibitions and show-window displays. By arranging the surface and spaces in the form of a grid the designer is favourably placed to dispose his texts,

photographs and diagrams in conformity with objective and functional criteria. The pictorial elements are reduced to a few formats of the same size. The size of the pictures is determined according to their importance for the subject. The reduction of the number of visual elements used and their incorporation in a grid system creates a sense of compact planning, intelligibility and clarity, and suggests orderliness of design. This orderliness lends added credibility to the information and induces confidence. Information presented with clear and logically set out titles, subtitles, texts, illustrations and captions will not only be read more quickly and easily but the information will also be better understood and retained in the memory. This is a scientifically proven fact and the 13 designer should bear it constantly in mind. The grid can be successfully used for the corporate identities of firms. This includes all visual media of information from the visiting card to the exhibition stand: all printed forms for internal and external use, advertising matter, vehicles for goods and passenger transport, name-plates and lettering and buildings,. Architects have used grids to determine proportions and communicate ideas visually for centuries.






Though the argument can be made that grids have always been a part of graphic design, many believe that the Swiss were the first to implement the practice. The great work of Josef Muller-Brockman, Le Courbusier, and Adrian Frutiger (only to name a few) revolutionized how the world views graphic design, even today. These mid-1990’s designers sought to do more than just make. Rather, they sought to grow the field of design, thus creating opportunity for millions to come. Combining design concepts from fields of architecture and industrial design from the Bauhaus and Arts & Crafts movements opened up a wide range of possibilities. This section explores the histoy of grids and how they have influenced the practice of design.

Are grid systems still relevant in digital product design?,

Ryan Lucas, March 14, 2017


n 1928, German typographer Jan Tschichold published the modernist graphic design manifesto Die Neue Typographie. Initially inspired by a Bauhaus exhibit on Russian constructivism, Tschichold believed that effective communication design could be codified into formal, standardized rules for typography and page layout. “The function of printed text is communication, emphasis (word value), and the logical sequence of the contents. Every part of a text relates to every other part by a definite, logical relationship of emphasis and value, predetermined by content.” This concept was enormously influential on the post-war generation of Swiss designers, including heavyweights like Max Bill, Emil Ruder, Armin Hofmann, Karl Gerstner, and Josef Müller-Brockmann. In what eventually became known as the International Typographic Style, these designers built on Tschichold’s work with page layouts based on strict, mathematical principles of uniformity and proportion. But it was Müller-Brockmann who was


first to formalize and document a grid system as a controlling principle for page layout. His work in the Neue Grafik design journal (1958–1965), The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems (1961), and the seminal Grid Systems in Graphic Design (1981) introduced practices for grid-based layout that became the modern standard. Müller-Brockmann’s grids are modular. The designer first segments the page into 2, 3, or more columns, then further divides the page horizontally into 2, 3 or more rows. The heights of the rows should be determined by the type size and leading, so that the baselines of the text always align evenly with the horizontal divisions. Each of the rectangles inside of this grid are known as modules. Content can then be aligned and sized to these modules in any configuration. For modernists like Tschichold and MüllerBrockmann, the industrial age demanded a dramatic shift in the role of the designer. To produce effective work in the age of mass-production, they felt that designer must understand and embrace

the systematic, functional language of engineering. “Distinguishing marks of [the engineer’s] work: economy, precision, use of pure constructional forms that correspond to the functions of the object.” JAN TSCHICHOLD “This is the expression of a professional ethos: the designer’s work should have the clearly intelligible, objective, functional, and aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking.” JOSEF MÜLLER-BROCKMANN. This was the zeitgeist that gave birth to the grid—and it’s easy to hear echoes of it today. Designers are wrestling with their roles in the digital product development process. Designing with programmatic and systematic approaches is becoming essential to manage the inherent complexity in creating software interfaces.

PRODUCTION SPEED. Unlike print, digital products are never really finished—they’re constantly being updated and iterated. Grids speed up this process by constraining the possible options for layout. When everything conforms to a grid, previous solutions can be easily reused and mistakes reduced.

WHILE THE SOCIOPOLITICAL AND AESTHETIC MOTIVATIONS OF THE MODERNISTS MAY BE OUTDATED, THE PRACTICAL ADVANTAGES OF GRID SYSTEMS ARE MORE RELEVANT THAN EVER: CLARITY AND CONSISTENCY. Proportion, rhythm, whitespace, and hierarchy improve speed of cognition. Grids help create and enforce these elements consistently throughout an interface. This is especially important in digital products, because they’re functional. The user has a job-to-be-done: sending a message, booking a hotel room, or consulting a technical schematic. A wind turbine technician entering repair data into a tablet needs familiarity and clarity, not a spread from Raygun magazine. EASE OF DESCRIPTION. To create things, you have to be able to describe them. Grids help the designer specify complex and responsive layouts with relative units, not absolute values. An element spanning the full width of a smartphone might be 320px, 375px, or 750px, depending on the device and screen density. In a 6 column grid, however, a full width element can always be described as span6. COLLABORATION. Grid systems help to decouple work on an interface design. Multiple designers can work on different components and design details separately, while still knowing that the layouts will fit together seamlessly in the final product. This is especially useful as teams and products scale.

These spreads show how grids can lead a reader’s eye and organize content.




Grid-based spreads from the Neue Grafik design journal represent grid designs introduced in the Frutiger and MullerBrockman era of graphic design.



History of the Design Grid, Alex Bigman, 2013


ave you ever stopped to notice that we live in a grid? From the arrangement of pixels on a screen, to the organization of the urban cities in which the majority of the world dwells, this visual system of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines determines the form of more than you may realize. It is no wonder, really, that we find ourselves so locked into the grid; for we design in one, too. Since the early days of print design, hundreds of years before the term “graphic design” even existed, the grid helped printers arrange their page layouts. Now, we use the grid to parse space in design software and determine the form of websites. Even if it remains entirely behind-thescenes, you can presume that it’s there. As designers, it’s important to understand the systems we inherit—basic as they may seem. So, we’ve put together this very brief history of the grid in art and design, from the (relatively) ancient days to the present. In this first part, we’ll discuss early

Grids can be traced back the first printed materials of old style type and text.


Renaissance uses of the grid, the birth of modern grid design and a list of terms that anyone working in print design—book covers, for example—absolutely must know. While Renaissance painting may seem a far cry from something like a page layout, it was this marriage of architecture and visual representation that first produced the grid (although it was not called that at the time). You may notice these canons of “perfect geometry” result in centered, symmetrical page layouts—not quite what we’re used to today. However, notions like the “golden rectangle”—a rectangle with the proportions of 1:1.618 that, when you subtract a square from it, yields another rectangle of those proportions, remains a lasting design concept. In the 13th century, the architect Villard De Honnecourt came up with a famous diagram used for producing page layouts with margins of fixed ratios—what was considered a “harmonious” design. This remains a guiding principle in the design of print objects such as book covers.

This image relates to the layout terms mentioned in the list below.

As capitalism reached maturity in the late 19th century, people began to think of graphic design as a profession in itself, and the first people to call themselves designers, like William Morris of the arts and crafts movement, began searching for words with which to describe their activities. The grid did not enter the graphic design lexicon until around World War I, in Switzerland. One of the only neutral countries in the war, Switzerland became a meeting ground for intellectual refugees from all over Europe. It was also one of the few places where printing supplies like paper and ink weren’t heavily rationed. These conditions amounted to a lot of sharp people printing a lot of multi-lingual documents, often with columns of French, Italian, German and English. This presented a design problem that typographers like Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold stepped up to address. One contribution of these designers was a turn away from the centered text positioning to an “asymmetric” approach meant to feel more natural for people reading left-to-right. Such an approach aligns text flush-left, ragged-right, often positioning the body of text slightly further to the left or right to leave a bigger margin for notes. The rule of thirds, another grid-based canon that you may be familiar with, operates based on a similar assumption that images are more dynamic and engaging when the focus is somewhat off-center.


The space between columns of text A reference to the vertical length of a column of text JUMP. The continuation of a flow of text from the bottom of one column to the top of another, or onto another page RAIL. (Typically about half the width of the other columns) at the far left or far right of a page, typically providing directory information for, say, a newspaper. HANG LINE. Like a horizontal rail, this is a line that separates information at the top of a page (such as an image, for example), from the text below, which seems to “hang” from the line SINGLE COLUMN GRID. As what you would find in a typical book MULTI-COLUMN (VERTICAL) GRID. As what you would find in a typical newspaper MODULAR GRID. A grid that involves about as many horizontal divisions as it does vertical ones, making for an especially flexible model of text and image arrangement GUTTER.





Grids can be traced back even further than the Swiss design era, as seen in this music book printed in 1495.



2-Dimensional Grids



To say the 2-dimensional grid is more limiting than that of the 3-dimensional would be a false claim. The possibilities within the 2-dimensional realm are just as, if not more, expansive as in a 3-dimensional space. In the 3-dimsnsional realm, possibilities for creativity are often restricted to limitations. The 2-dimensional realm offers more opportunity as it is not constrained as tightly to these limitations. In this section you will learn how grids are used in both print and digital design. It will further open you mind to the invisible structures you interact with everyday. You may as well notice the grid structure of this very book. The importance of grids in the 2-dimensional space is simply to lead the human eye in a way that is hardly noticed.

Modular Design: The Com-

plete Primer for Beginners,

Carrie Cousins, July 27, 2015 (Print Design)


odular design is a technique where everything is built using a block grid pattern. Each of the elements of the design fit into the modules in rectangular patterns. Modular design has been around for a long time. It was popularized at various stages by newspaper designers as they created modules for the components of each story in that day’s edition of the paper. But modules are popular for other design styles as well, because the use of a distinct grid is a good way to organize and manage content. The modular grid is especially useful for projects where there is an abundance of content or lots of bits of content that might be unrelated on the face but appear in a design together (this is why the style was so popular for newspapers with so many unrelated parts on a large canvas). In the website design landscape, modular design is a popular option because of the flexible nature of the modular grid. Modular concepts can be easy to work with when designing for


responsive frameworks and the grid-style format works especially well with some other trends such as cards and minimalism. Modular design takes some thought on the front end of projects but really is just a gridbased design system that works like any other grid. It works for any type of project or style. And it will help you design with organization and harmony. Modular design is not a concept that is only for graphic designers. Everything from architecture to interior design to the way computers or even cars are built can be modular in nature. (And any of these places can be a good place to look for modular graphic design inspiration.) In other fields, the definition of modular design is a little broader but can still be applied in graphic design theory. Modular design includes elements that fit together like blocks visually, such as cubicles in an office or a brick wall on the outside of a building. Modularly designed elements are also made to be interchangeable, such as parts that you can use in one computer or another or a specific

type of car battery that works in multiple automobiles. In physical practice, modular design often makes people think of a Lego-block style design where pieces can be snapped together or apart from each other. Modular design for print projects starts with the grid. The grid and the enclosed modules in the grid dictate every design choice you make. The grid helps you determine where to place elements, spacing and how to align text. Thankfully, using this grid is not near as restrictive as you might imagine. Because you can draw within the grid lines in any number of patterns or combinations, the actual possibilities are pretty much limitless. This type of grid can be set up in just about any type of graphic design software that you want to use and consists of horizontal and vertical gridlines and gutters (spacing guides). Once the grid is put on the canvas, it should look like a series of “blocks” – although they do not have to be square – and skinny blocks (which are the gutter, or open space, guides). How it works is simple. Every bit of content lives within the blocks and there must be a gutter width of space between elements. You can mix and match blocks of different shapes and sizes but everything remains in a harmonious design pattern with horizontal and vertical flow.


grid breaks space or time into regular units. A grid can be simple or complex, specific or generic, tightly defined or loosely interpreted. Typographic grids are all about control. They establish a system for arranging content within the space of page, screen, or built environment. Designed in response to the internal pressures of content (text, image, data) and the outer edge or frame (page, screen, window), an effective grid is not a rigid formula but a flexible and resilient structure, a skeleton that moves in concert with the muscular mass of information. Grids belong to the technological framework of typography, from the concrete modularity of letterpress to the ubiquitous rulers, guides, and coordinate system s of graphics applications. Although software generates illusion s of smooth curves and continuous tones, every digital image or mark is constructed-ultimately- from a grid of neatly bounded blocks. The ubiquitous language of the GUI (graphical user interface) creates a gridded space in which windows overlay windows in a haphazard way. In addition to the place in the background of design production, grids have become explicit theoretical tools. Avant-garde designers in the 1910s and 1920s exposed the

Thinking With Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students,

First Edition, Ellen Lupton, 2004

Modular grids help designers organize content when working with typography, image, illustration, etc.



mechanical grid of letterpress, bringing it to the polemical surface of the page. In Switzerland after World War II, graphic designers built a total design methodology around the typographic grid, hoping to construct with it a new and rational social order. The grid has evolved across centuries of typographic development. For graphic designers, grids are carefully honed intellectual devices, infused with ideology and ambition, and they are the inescapable mesh that filters, at some level of resolution, nearly every system of writing and reproduction. Alphabetic writing, like most writing systems, is organized into columns and rows of characters. Whereas handwriting flows into connected lines, the mechanics of metal type impose a stricter order. Each letter occupies its own block, and the letters congregate in orderly rectangles. Stored in gridded cases, the characters become an archive of elements, a matrix of existing forms from which each page is composed. Until the twentieth century, grids served as frames for fields of text. The margins of a classical book page create a pristine barrier around a flush, solid block of text. A page dominated by a solitary field of type remains today’s most common book format, although that perfect rectangle is now broken with indents and line breaks, and the margins are peppered with page numbers and running heads (text indicating the book or chapter title). In addition to the classical norm of the single -column page, various alternative layouts existed during the first centuries of printing, from the two-column grid of Gutenberg’s Bible to more elaborate layouts derived from the medieval scribal tradition, where passages of scripture are surrounded by scholarly commentary. Polyglot (multilingual) books display a text in several languages simultaneously, demanding complex divisions of the surface. Such formats permit multiple streams of text to coexist while defending the sovereignty of the page-as-frame. The philosopher Jaques Derrida has described the frame in Western art as a form that seems to be separate from the work yet is necessary for marking its difference from every-

Swiss poster designs are prime examples of how grids can be used to create hierarchy.


day life. A frame or pedestal elevates the work, removing it from the realm of the ordinary. The work thus depends on the frame for its status and visibility. Typography is, by and large, an art of framing, a form designed to melt away as it yields itself to content. Designers focus much of their energy on margins, edges, and empty spaces, elements that oscillate between present and absent, visible and invisible. With print’s ascent, margins became the user interface of the book, providing space for page numbers, running heads, commentary, notes, and ornaments. In the nineteenth century, the multi-columned, multimedia pages of newspapers and magazines challenged the supremacy of the book and its insular edge, making way for new typogologies of the grid. By questioning the protective function of the frame, modem artist s and designer s unleashed the grid as a flexible, critical, and systematic tool. Avant-garde artists and poets attacked the barriers between art and everyday life, creating new objects and practices that merged with urban experience. The assault against print ‘s traditional syntax was led by F. T. Marinetti, who established the Futurist movement in 1909. Marinetti devised poems that combined different styles and sizes of type and allowed lines of text to span multiple rows. Marinetti’s ingenious manipulations of the printing process work against-but inside-the constraints of letterpress, exposing the technological grid even while trying to overturn it. Dada artists and poets performed similar typographic experiments, using letterpress printing as well as collage, montage, and various forms of photomechanical reproduction. Constructivism, which originated in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1910s, built on Futurist and Dada typography, bringing a more rational app roach to the attack on typographic tradition. El Lissitzky employed the elements of the print shop to emphasize the mechanics of letterpress, using printer‘s rules to make the technological matrix actively and physically present. Constructivism used rules to divide space, throwing its symmetry

into a new kind of balance. The page was no longer a fixed, hierarchical window through which content might be viewed, but an expanse that could be mapped and articulated, a space extending beyond the edge. For Dutch artists and designers, the grid was a gateway to the infinite. The paintings of Piet Mondrian, their abstract surfaces crossed by vertical and horizontal lines, suggest the expanding of the grid beyond the limits of the canvas. Theo


Breaking down the grid.


van Doesburg, Piet Zwart, and other members of the Dutch De Stijl group applied this idea to design and typography. Converting the curves and angles of the alphabet into perpendicular systems, they forced the letter through the mesh of the grid. Like the Constructivists, they used vertical and horizontal bars to structure the surface of the page. Some graphic designers are fascinated with the golden section and use it to create various grids and page formats-indeed, entire books have been written on the subject. Other designers believe that the golden section is no more valid as a basis for deriving sizes and proportions than other methods, such as beginning from standard industrial paper sizes, or dividing surfaces into halves or squares, or simply picking wholenumber page formats and making logical divisions within them. While single-column grids work well for simple documents, multicolumn grids provide flexible formats for publications that have a complex hierarchy or that integrate text and illustrations. The more columns you create, the more flexible your grid becomes. You can use the grid to articulate the hierarchy of the publication by creating zones for different kinds of content. A text or image can occupy a single column or it can span several. Not all the space has to be filled. A modular grid has consistent horizontal divisions from top to bottom in addition to vertical divisions from left to right. These modules govern the placement and cropping of pictures as well as text. In the 1950s and 1960s, Swiss graphic designers including Gerstner, Ruder, and MĂźllerBrockmann devised modular grid systems like the one shown here.


Modular grids are created by positioning horizontal guidelines in relation to a baseline grid that governs the whole document. Baseline grids serve to anchor all (or nearly all) layout elements to a common rhythm. Create a baseline grid by choosing the type size and leading of your text, such as 10-pt Scala Pro with 12 pts leading (10/12). Avoid auto leading so that you can work with whole numbers that multiply and divide cleanly. Use this line space increment to set the baseline grid in your document preferences. Adjust the top or bottom page margin to absorb any space left over by the baseline grid. Determine the number of horizontal page units in relation to the number of lines in your baseline grid. Count how many lines fit in a full column of text and then choose a number that divides evenly into the line count to create horizontal page divisions. A column with forty-two lines of text divides neatly into seven horizontal modules with six lines each. If your line count is not neatly divisible, adjust the top and/or bottom page margins to absorb the leftover lines. To style headlines, captions, and other elements, choose line spacing that works with the baseline grid, such as 18/24 for headlines, 14/18 for subheads, and 8/12 for captions. Web designers can choose similar increments (line height in CSS) to create style sheets with neatly coordinated baselines. Where possible, position all page elements in relation to the baseline grid. Don’t force it, though. Sometimes a layout works better when you override the grid. View the baseline grid when you want to check the position of elements; turn it off when it’s distracting.

Breaking down the grid.



Better grid systems in UI

design tools, Ryan Lucas, March 14, 2017


he screen isn’t the same as the printed page. It’s easy for the designer, having fallen in love with the grid’s simplicity and flexibility, to seek to apply it everywhere: “if one has a hammer, one tends to look for nails.” But MüllerBrockmann’s recommendations in Grid Systems in Graphic Design are fairly rigid prescriptions. Attempting to follow them literally in digital work—where precise control is rarely available —can be an exercise in futility. Variability of output media When creating printed matter, for example, the graphic designer generally knows the parameters of the final output medium—things like page size, reading distance, and print resolution. Müller-Brockmann’s advice reflects this: he encouraged designers to base grids on standard paper sizes, noting that “most printed matter adheres to [these] sizes.” His column configurations and typographic scales are rooted in the assumption that printed matter is “generally read with the eye at a distance of 30cm.”

Responsive web refers to the everchanging boundaries of a website’s container. Screens are all different sized. Today’s websites must comply with the different forms available and mend themselves to fit the shape.


Digital designers can’t make these assumptions. Users interact with software on all kinds of devices—smartphones, tablets, wearables, laptops, desktops, TVs, and more. An interface design might have to be responsive to several (or perhaps even all) of these devices. Moreover, these devices vary not just in physical size, but rendered screen resolutions, physical screen resolutions, pixel densities, reading distances, orientations, and contexts of use. (For an overview of device resolution and pixel density, see Sebastien Gabriel’s Designer’s Guide to DPI.) Variability of content and typography A book or magazine designer knows their content before the reader sees it, so they can be sure that the grid system accommodates the specific layout needs of that content. Digital products, though, are often built around dynamic data—the content that is displayed to the user may never have been seen by the designer. The designer can try to work with representative data, but edge cases are common. A single UI

design can also have to account for content in different languages and scripts, right-to-left orientations, and so on. Additionally, the full layout of the content is often not entirely visible to the user. The grid’s rationality and hierarchy may be perfectly evident to the reader when gazing upon a poster or flipping through a magazine spread. But what about on a smartphone, where most of the content is hidden behind a long, scrollable web view? LASTLY, THE PERFECT HORIZONTAL AND VERTICAL RHYTHMS OF MÜLLER-BROCKMANN’S MODULAR GRIDS ARE BASED ON THE METRICS OF THE TYPOGRAPHY: FONT FAMILY, SIZE, LEADING, WORDS PER LINE, AND SO ON. IN PRINT, THESE ARE ABSOLUTES. BUT IN DIGITAL, THEY ARE VARIABLES: AN APPLICATION MIGHT USE DIFFERENT FONTS (with different metrics) on iOS, Android, and the web —or fall back to a default when a webfont doesn’t load properly. USERS CAN SCALE UP font-sizes on the client side for accessibility reasons. EVEN IN THE SAME FONT, the physical size of characters can vary between languages. A font may be easy to read at 12px in English, but barely legible in Japanese. FONT METRICS need to resize responsively or fluidly based on device size and reading distance.

So what’s wrong with grids in UI design tools? Software developers have tools to help manage screen layout complexity: constraint systems like iOS’ AutoLayout and Android’s Constraint Layout, Flexbox, and even grid-specific frameworks like the upcoming CSS Grid. But layout decisions should be made by designers, not delegated to developers. They’re critical to the form and function of an interface. Ideally, designers must be able to explore the consequences of grid layout decisions visually, not just in code. 75% of interface designers primarily use Photoshop, Illustrator, or Sketch. Each of these tools was created around the metaphor of the page, not the screen. Unsurprisingly, the methods

for working with grids in these tools are also based on the print tradition. For digital product designers, this leads to some big pain points in everyday use. Responsiveness To create a grid, you typically set parameters like total width, number and width of columns, gutters, and margins. This creates a grid scaffold that is drawn as a set of guide lines on top of the artboard. Elements can then be manually snapped to these guide lines. This works fine for print. The designer knows that their publication is going to use, say, the A4 paper size. But what happens in digital, when you need to simulate a different device size? Changing the artboard dimensions means that the grid either is either too big or too small. The most common workaround to this problem is to create multiple artboards, each corresponding to a unique device category, like smartphones, tablets, and desktops. Individual grids can then be created separately for each device/artboard. This is a pretty lousy simulation of output media, though, as it only represents three potential device resolutions. (In the above example, it’s the iPhone 7, the iPad, and a 13” Macbook Pro.) Are the grid decisions still sound on a Google Pixel or an iMac 5K? What about in landscape orientations or split views? Working with only few fixed grid configurations makes it easy to miss problems while you’re working. Either the developer will find them during implementation—necessitating a lot of annoying back-and-forth—or the broken layouts will end up in your final product. Propagating changes In the influential Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Josef Müller-Brockmann calls for grids to be specified at the start of a project, before any page layout occurs. In fact, Müller-Brockmann suggests knowing all the variables of a project before specifying the grid. Before work can begin questions regarding the format, the text and illustrations, the typeface, the printing method and the quality of paper must be cleared up. These variables, of course, can have an impact on the grid system. For example: reading distance influences font size decisions and font sizes impact column widths and row heights. In print,



these variables are knowable and don’t typically change. A book doesn’t suddenly become a newspaper. So it’s not surprising that print-legacy visual design tools were never designed to handle these kinds of changes. Subtracting a few units of width from the gutters—or adding in a couple more columns—means that you have to manually realign all elements to the new grid lines: For UI designers, grid changes are often necessary. It’s just not possible to account for every output and content variable before starting visual design. Furthermore, while print projects are complete when they goes to press, software interfaces are never “finished.” They’re constantly being iterated and improved. As shown above, though, a simple change to the grid means manually realigning every element in a design. Multiplied by hundreds of screens, a grid change can mean hours (or days) of miserable pixel pushing. Experimentation When constructing a new grid, Müller-Brockmann would make small hand sketches of potential configurations. The technical difficulty of the process was apparent even to him: “In sketching a grid, care must be taken to ensure that the sketch corresponds as closely as possible to the proportions of the final printed format. […] Only in this way is it possible gradually to acquire the ability to produce, even in very small sketches, typographic patterns which are realistic, i.e. which can be transferred to the final format without difficulty.”—Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, pgs. 94, 49 Of course, this was the only means for MüllerBrockmann to cheaply experiment with possible grid layouts: he didn’t have access to the computer in 1981. It’s pretty puzzling, though, that nearly 40 years later, computer-based design tools still don’t facilitate this sort of experimentation. Much of the time, you quickly want to divide up some elements across the available space, either evenly or in proportion. This is a grid like any other, but defining a grid scaffold to do this feels premature in the early process of exploring layouts. Time to break out the calculator. Get the width of the containing space, subtract the number of


gutters multiplied by their width, then divide the remainder by the number of elements. Draw an element with the result, duplicate it for each column, then distribute all of them evenly: This is straightforward enough, but manually doing calculations like this doesn’t keep up with the speed of thought. When you start asking questions like “will it be too small if I put 8 photos on this row instead of 6?”, doing the maths each time is tedious and discourages quick experimentation. What might better grid tools look like? All of these pain points lead to one conclusion: UI/UX designers need better ways to work with grids during visual design. Kevin and I have been working on some solutions for Subform. Let’s look at the principles (and examples) that we’ve come up with thus far. (All of these demos were recorded directly from Subform.) Grids should be responsive by nature. For grid systems to work across lots of different devices, you should to be able to specify values in flexible percentages and proportions, not just exact pixels. These values allow you to build a simple responsive grid very quickly, without doing any arithmetic. You simply set a number of columns and tell each column to stretch. The columns then evenly divide up the available space, based on the width of the artboard: Stretchable columns can be mixed with fixed columns, gutters, and margins. The gutters in the above example are set to 12px, so their width stays fixed as the artboard resizes. A stretchable column can also accept proportions. This opens up interesting possibilities for non-uniform grids, like specifying that one column should always be three times as wide as the others: Working this way makes it much easier to understand how a grid will work across different device sizes and orientations—and catch any edge cases before they get passed to the development team. Forget guides and snapping—elements should have a formal relationship to the grid. In existing tools, the grid is just a collection of guide lines that overlay the artboard. Elements can be snapaligned to these guides, but that’s all. The elements don’t know anything about their larger relationship to the grid.The thing is, a grid is the relationship

between elements. Guide lines are a visual hack to assist in creating those relationships manually. It’s far better to build those relationships directly. For example, you should be able to place an element using a rule like “start in column 2, then span 4 columns.” This can be done implicitly via direct manipulation, or explicitly by using a shorthand like 2 / span 4. Now when the grid changes, the elements will automatically resize and preserve their alignments: This also opens up new possibilities for the direct manipulation of the grid itself, like resizing gutters and columns. Grids should enable fast experimentation.Being able to define grids informally while working—without using a calculator—is also a much needed feature. You might want to add some elements to the artboard that automatically divide up the available space, then insert evenly sized gutters between them. Having the design tool do these calculations on the fly—instead of painstakingly doing the math by hand—makes experimentation fast and visual. Questions like “how many photos should display in a row on the smartphone?”

can be easily tried out in seconds, rather than after lots of painstaking, tedious pixel pushing. Twodimensional grids shouldn’t be overlooked. Column grids cover a lot of use cases, but many layouts require both columns and rows, similar to MüllerBrockmann’s modular grid. You should be able to describe elements in both of these dimensions: “Horizontally, this element should start in column 3 and span 2 columns. Vertically, it should start on row 1 and end on row 2.” As with one-dimensional grids, resizing the grid in either direction automatically reflows the content. Subform can also calculate changes to the grid, like adding gutters, in real-time. Anything should be able to contain a grid. Existing tools only allow a grid to be defined for the entire artboard, but that’s an arbitrary boundary. Grids are helpful to solve lots of design problems, not just screenlevel layout. Any rectangular element should be able to contain a grid. A table, for example, might need a separate grid structure from the screen it lives on. Hierarchical grids can be found in many examples of web design.




Breaking down the grid.





Grids in the 3-dimensional realm are used to provide structure and organization. Most 3-dimensional grids are intended for physical, human interaction. The reason buildings are constructed so precisely is not only to give people a place to work or live, it is done so to ensure safety and reliability. Designers use the grid to create structures that allow for people to go about their business as conveniently as possible. We are always surrounded by this invisible phenomenon, as it guides us, shapes our paths, and determines our way of life. In this section, the grid will be revealed in the 3-dimensional realm through the work and ideas of two great multidisciplinary designers, Le Corbusier and Michael Hann. The Ideas of Le Corbusier: On Architecture and Urban Planning, Jaques Guiton, 1981


s we have seen, Le Corbusier’s idea of harmony plays a major role in his theory of architectural design. This chapter describes the method he used to attain harmonious proportions: regulating diagrams, the Golden Section, and his own modular. Such methods, he points out, were used in all great periods of architecture up to and including the Renaissance, and he deplores their subsequent decline and disappearance. It is a controversial subject. However, given Le Corbusier’s passionate interest in harmony, it cannot be bypassed. He claims to have devoted his entire life to “art and, more specifically, a search for harmony,” which he considers “the most beautiful of human passions.” This lifelong quest led to the following conclusion: “One feels very clearly that the precision required of any act that arouses a superior quality of emotion is based on mathematics. The result can be expressed by the single word harmony. Harmony is the happy coexistence of things; coexistence implies duality


or multiplicity and consequently calls for proportions and consonances. What sort of consonances? Those existing between ourselves and our environment, between the spirit of man and the spirit of things, between mathematics as a human invention and mathematics as the secret of the universe. “Le Corbusier’s approach has frequently been ridiculed, but anyone who has felt the thoroughly satisfying and pleasing effect created by the appearance of his buildings is bound to admit that his approach has produced remarkable results. This does not seem entirely coincidental. We must also recognize that Le Corbusier’s methods are widely misunderstood. Many people believe that he was talking about ready-made formulas when he was really talking about tools that, like any tools, are effective only when used effectively. Le Corbusier did not conceive his traces regulations or regulating diagrams, as predetermined grids on which to base designs. They were to be used only after the design had been drawn

up to make the proportions more exact. He discovered a need for such diagrams at the outset of his career: “I built my first house when I was seventeen; it was covered with decorations. I was twenty-four when I built my second house; it was white and bare: I had traveled in the meantime. The plans of this second house were lying on my drafting board. The year was 1911. I was suddenly struck by the arbitrary placing of the openings in the facade (the windows). I blacked them in with a piece of charcoal; the black spots now spoke some kind of language, but it was an incoherent language. Again I was struck by the absence of a rule or law. Appalled, I realized that I was working in utter chaos. And I then discovered, for my own purposes, the need for a regulating device. This obsession would henceforth occupy a corner of my mind.” In a more detailed account of this discovery, Le Corbusier writes: “I felt very clearly a need to establish some sort of a family relationship between the different elements, particularly between what the eye perceived immediately, the outline of the facade, and what it perceived next, a projecting wing, and what it perceived afterwards, the door and window openings and their surrounding wall surfaces. I needed a regulating diagram: a diagram based on diagonals, for a diagonal can express the special character of a surface in a single line. I thus drew the diagonal of the facade, that of the projecting wing, that of the door, and that of a plain surface which was an important element of the composition. I then could see that when these diagonals were parallel or perpendicular to each other, the different surfaces that they defined belonged to the same family and consequently agreed with one another. If these diagonals were not parallel or perpendicular, I did my utmost to correct them. “But we cannot always do exactly what we want. A house is often subject to requirements that have nothing to do with geometric or plastic considerations: its height and width, for example, are often determined by zoning regulations. I was thus occasionally obliged to use two different sets of diagonals. This produced a binary composition

less strong but also, perhaps, more subtle· than a diagram ne agon · ut remember that no theory of regulation diagram can do you work for you: a creator must ultimately rely on his own judgment. In his book Vers une architecture Le Corbusier defines the term as follows: “A regulation diagram is a way of ensuring ourselves against what is arbitrary: the schoolboy’s ‘preuve par neuf,’ the mathematician’s Q.E.D. “A regulation diagram satisfies ingenious and harmonious relationships. It makes a work eurythmic. A regulation diagram offers a tangible form of mathematics, the welcome sense of a visible order. The choice of a regulating diagram determines the basic geometry of a piece of work, one of its principal characteristics. The choice of a regulating diagram is one of the decisive moments of inspiration; it is an essential procedure in architecture.” The regulating diagrams in and of themselves, are merely corrective instruments; the choice of proper system is the creative act: “‘There is no hard and fast, easily applicable formula for using regulating diagrams; it is really a question of inspiration, of true creativity. One has to discover the latent geometric law that governs determines the character discover a certain moment it will spring to mind and unify all the parts. There will be a few adjustments, a few corrections, and a perfect harmony will finally prevail.” Two-point perspective drawings ensure perfect ratios for architects.



Stripes, Grids, and Checks, Michael Hann, 2015


s noted previously in Chapter 1, lines may be assembled to create grids, considered often to be those two-dimensional structures which consist of two sets of parallel lines, one superimposed on the other, often at ninety degrees. Grids appear to have fulfilled a range of functions over the years. The objectives of this chapter are to introduce and define relevant terms and to review briefly the role played by grids, both historically and in modern times, in underpinning visual compositions of various kinds. In figurative as well as non-figurative visual compositions, grids have been employed to determine the positioning of constituent elements. In the case of a square or rectangular format (such as a double-page magazine spread, a photograph or a painter’s canvas), the grid may consist simply of a set of two parallel vertical lines superimposed at ninety degrees on a set of two parallel horizontal lines, thus creating nine rectangles (or three-bythree divisions). The composition is then created (or edited) by reference to these nine rectangles, possibly with dominant elements positioned either within the central rectangle or at one of the four central intersection points created by the two sets of intersecting lines Ambrose and Harris (2008) carried out a wide-ranging review of the subject, identifying how grids have been used as guides in the placing of design elements across several graphic-design areas. Taking a simple square format as an example, Elam (2004) demonstrated the numerous alternatives available to the designer when making compositional decisions involving the placing of blocks of text using the simple thereby-three division of a square. A useful review of techniques and approaches used in layout design was provided by Samara (2005). In the context of this present book, the word ‘grid’ is used to refer to two-dimensional assemblies of lines running in at least two distinct directions, which act as a guide to the placing of components of a design or other visual statement, range of applications Williamson (1986), who defined a grid as a proportional system of coordinates intersected by vertical and


horizontal axes’, considered its use as a guideline for the positioning of text and images in late-medieval (fifteenth-century) European manuscripts. It seems that the use of vertical and horizontal lines as an underlying structure, guiding the positioning of text and images, during medieval times (and probably before) did not differ substantially from the use of grids to regulate page layout in relatively modern times (for example, in newspapers, magazines, posters and web pages). As observed by Williamson (1986), visual analysis of European medieval manuscripts suggests that grids fulfilled a representational and symbolic purpose as well as aiding decisions relating to organizing the composition, aligning edges and objects and regulating widths for lines of text. Representational and symbolic positioning of text and images, similar to that practised in medieval times, is sometimes a feature of visual composition in modern times stripes, grids and checks as well. Occasionally, political preferences or messages may be expressed through allowing selected images or text to dominate the layout of newspaper or magazine pages. In centuries past, global exploration and discovery required precise marine navigation, and this was aided by insights from the Flemish mathematician and cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who proposed a grid with mathematically determined coordinates, with longitudinal and latitudinal axes and with accurate representations of physical distances (Williamson, 1986). Perspective grids were introduced also in Renaissance Europe. Williamson (1986) observed that, like Mercator’s cartographic grid, mathematical perspective grids gave a representation of spatial relationships between physical points on a plane. Grids were used in medieval and Renaissance Europe as a means for transferring the details of a small sketch (or cartoon) on paper to large painting surfaces such as plaster wall areas. A cartoon or outline was drawn on to a grid (probably with square unit cells created by two systems of parallel lines at right angles to each other) on a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, the larger-scale surface to be painted was split into the same number of equally


Grids mold the structures around us by creating consistency.


sized squares, with each of a larger size compared to the squares of the sheet of paper. The drawing or outline was then reproduced one square at a time with the drawing lines in the small squares being redrawn, with the same directional orientation and to larger scale, in the bigger squares. Series of vertical and horizontal lines may have been used also as guidelines in composition, particularly as a means of determining grids— guidelines, frameworks and measuring devices verticality and horizontally, as well as the placing of motifs or other components, simply to ensure that they fitted within the physical boundaries of the surface being worked on. A further compositional role of such grids may have been as a guide to visual accuracy and the application of reflection symmetry to components within a composition; the near universality of reflection symmetry in the natural and manufactured worlds is well known, and simple grid forms would have been a convenient guideline and means of ensuring convincing representation of relevant subject matter. The high Even in rough sketches, perspective grids can effectively communicate spacial ideas.


degree of image symmetry in some Italian Renaissance paintings (e.g. Raphael’s The School of Athens) suggests to the present author that horizontal and vertical guidelines, probably in grid form, were in common use among visual artists. Collins (1962) considered the possible origins of the use of ‘graph’ (or squared) paper in twentieth century architectural design and noted early usage in eighteenth-century France, where squared paper was printed specifically for use by silk weavers in Lyon to denote the disposition of patterning to be brought about by the raising of warp threads above weft threads during the weaving process. He noted further that line spacing in early examples of silk weavers’ squared paper often varied considerably, as exact measurement of component squares was not a crucial requirement. Rather, selected (or inked-in) ‘squares’ simply indicated the order of raised warp threads during the weaving process, and squared-paper drawing was by no means a scaled version of the final woven fabric; often, the constituent unit cells

would be non-square rectangles of various dimensions. Collins (1962) commented: ‘Exact measurement was unnecessary since the drawn patterns were neither the same size as, nor mathematically scaled to, the pattern which appeared on the finished silk.’ Despite this, it seems that squared paper intended for recording woven-silk designs was adapted to architecturaldesign uses, even though scaled precision was crucial to architectural designs (Collins, 1962). There appears to be some evidence, however, for the use of types of portable squared surfaces (of paper or other material) in architectural design in the centuries prior to squared paper being adapted from the French woven-silk industry. According to Collins (1962), the use of a squared grid as a basis for design drawing seems to have been familiar to medieval masons and was used in illustrations in the 1521 edition of Vitruvius’s classic work De Architectura (Collins, 1962). Collins noted that the use of the square grid was to be ‘of incalculable importance in the subsequent history of architecture since it constituted the origin of what is now termed the “modular” system of design’ (Collins, 1962) By the second half of the twentieth century, squared (or graph) paper was a common drawing surface for artists. The grid became established firmly in modern European visual art. Mondrian, for example, working in the early twentieth century, commonly used a composition consisting of a white field with black vertical and horizontal lines (or bars) enclosing rectangular zones of primary colours or white with the suggestion of extension beyond the borders of the canvas. This suggestion of extension is common in textile and other surfacepattern designs, where a component of the design repeats on a regular basis in two directions across the plane; in each case, the viewer attempts to identify the repeating unit of the design and seeks an understanding of how this unit repeats vertically and horizontally. Davis noted the use of grids in various forms by artists such as Degas, Gorky, Cezanne, Mondrian and Malevich as well as by Warhol, Vasarely and many others in the twentieth century.

Grids in urban planning are used to organize 3-dimensional structures and create convenient flow for city-dwellers.

The work of Mondrian has received particular attention in the educational context. There has, for example, been a focus on the nature of artistic behaviour and the differentiation between this and ‘non-artistic’ behaviour. Locher, Overbeeke and Stappers (2005) reported on a series of relevant experiments, and an earlier review of the nature of composition (including consideration of the work of Mondrian) was provided by McManus, Cheema and Stoker A group of visual-arts-and-design students at the University of Leeds considered the compositional characteristics of the rectangular grid structures typical of the work of the artist Mondrian. Subsequently, the students were requested to construct a rectangle (with black lines on a white background) to dimensions of their choice, to divide this rectangle into at least five smaller rectangles and then to ‘colour’ each of these with one of three values (black, white or grey). The objective was to create a balanced composition in the tradition of Mondrian. From this small selection,



it is apparent that each student interpreted the word ‘balanced ‘ differently, and also that limitless possibilities for visual variation arise even when severe restrictions have been imposed. With this latter consideration in mind, it should be stressed at his stage that the use of grid forms, guidelines or similar structures by visual artists and designers does not hamper and restrain creative activity but, rather, helps to channel it towards given objectives. The use of grids became established among surface-pattern designers (e.g. in the design of textiles and wallpaper), particularly as an aid in the precise placing of elements in a regularly repeating design, and among graphic designers in determining the placing of text and images in book or magazine spreads as well as webpage design. Ambrose and Harris (2008) gave a detailed explanation of grid types and their use in a variety of design applications, particularly in promotional and advertising page layouts. They commented: A grid is the basic framework with which a design is created. It provides a reference structure that


guides the placement of the elements forming the anatomy of a design such as text, images and illustrations, in addition to general elements such as straplines and folios’ key scholarly publications which show the importance of grid systems in design development include Trudeau, Elam, Samara and Ambrose and Harris. Meanwhile, Nicolai provided an impressive and useful catalogue of grid types. A grid can be defined as a two-dimensional assembly of lines running in at least two distinct directions. It has been seen that grids have been used as frameworks to transfer a drawing from one surface (a sheet of paper) to a largerscale surface (the interior wall of a building); as an indicator of a sequence of actions (in weaving, to indicate the occasional raising of warp threads); as a compositional and alignment device (in determining the position of components on either side of a symmetry axis, or to ensure alignment horizontally, vertically or diagonally); or as a measuring device.

Numen/For Use created an interactive exhibition for people to interact with grids in 3-dimensional space.



Urban Watercolor Art—Summit Ridge, Denver, CO on Etsy.




Gridded Identities



Much like grids, bands are all around us. We live in a consumer’s world, which makes it nearly impossible to leave the house or turn on the television without coming face to face with a brand. When most people think of brands, they think of the face of a company: the logo. But branding goes far beyond the facade. Branding, today, is all about systems and structure. The underlying structure of a brand is its grid. Brand standards manuals provide instructions on how design brand assets. Marketing collateral usually consists of a specific structure for its layout. This informs the creator of the materials where the elements are placed on the piece, creating consistency within the overall brand image. This consistency is what consumers subliminally hold fast to.

Principles of Design: Bringing

Order to Chaos with Grid Systems, Simon Martin, October 25, 2016


hen you start working with clients you have to understand that the work you produce is not just about how good or bad a design is. It has a lot to do with the way the design fits into the wider spectrum of things. Does this design fall in line with the overall theme of the company? Does this design ‘say’ what the company tries to say? In some instances and with some clients, you don’t even have to make a ‘great’ design, however, you are expected to make something that would be well received by the company and their audience. Being aware of this is being aware of the branding of a company. What is branding and why is it important? A quick lesson on branding: Companies should be trying to brand their company (especially if they believe they have a unique service or product to offer). The benefits of branding are often long term, but include customer qualities like loyalty, memorability familiarity and at some point, your marketing


expenses will significantly decrease because an audience is already familiar with you. All that stuff sounds good, HOWEVER, the catch is that the company is not in direct control of the brand. In a nutshell, branding is the perceived emotional image of a company as a whole and, in its simplest form, has nothing to do with things like logos and stationary as many designers will lead you to believe. Branding is a fairly complicated subject because typically the company’s management and the designer are trying to figure out how to brand the company, or how to find a way in which the company will be unique and find a place in the customers mind; but it’s really not about what the management and the designer want, branding really relies on the perception of the audience. So the next question is, ‘How do you find out what your audience is thinking?’ The answer is pretty simple: by doing marketing research—in its simplest form, this could be a survey sent to past customers asking them their

perception of the company. The main goal here is to understand your audience and what they think about your company. The next step is how to capitalize (or fix) that perception. That’s branding! Why is branding necessary? Every good company should be trying to create a brand and not just creating a company or a nice product. A nicely branded company has placement in your mind–when you think of innovation, perhaps you think of Apple Products. When you think of graphic design, you may automatically think of Adobe Products or Photoshop directly. These are just examples of what good branding is and how they create an attachment with their audience. When you create a business without really throwing attempts at branding it, your audience will kind of lose sight of it and most times think of it as a copycat business or nothing to really write home about. Worst of all, you may not have an audience at all! The best way to find out if your client is serious, is to ask them what they would like their brand to be perceived as. If they don’t have a decent answer (that makes sense: saying ‘We want to be the next Photoshop’ doesn’t count), then they aren’t serious about their business and desire no long term success. Brand recognition and consistency The ultimate goal of a company, is to win the hearts and minds of your consumers. Once you’ve done that, you have achieved what is called ‘brand recognition.’ This means your audience knows the company well enough to know what they may or may not say, and what they may or may not look like. As a designer, you try to help with the recognized look of a company. For example, if you see a red bullseye, you may automatically think of Target Stores. If you are a designer working with Target Stores, you better believe you aren’t designing something using predominately blue squares—that’s just not that brand. You want to create something that is consistent and adds to a company’s brand and if you are working with a company that does not have an established brand, you want to create something that works within the views of the company. For example, if I’m working with a brand new music studio start up that wants to focus on traditional

country music, I’m not going to give them something that looks like it was made for a pop star. Consistency is absolutely key if a company wants an audience to recognize them. Recognition also works in a way that creates placement in a persons thought patterns. This recognition and placement can work positively for one company and maybe even negatively for another. For example, some people think that Volvos are some of the safest cars or Chevrolets are gas guzzling machines—positive and negative effects. In another example, a car might try to brand itself as a super safe car, but an audience may feel its safety features aren’t better than a Volvo, so they just end up getting a Volvo. Once your audience has clamped on to that recognition or that placement, if it’s positive, you want to do everything you can to continue with it If it’s negative you want to do everything you can to change it. Recognition and placement for brands can end up pushing sales harder than any marketing or advertising plan. Pentagram’s Poetry Foundation brand design uses a grid to unify the brand when typography changes.


How designers contribute to brand consistency Design is only a small portion of branding. Creating a super sweet logo and letterhead doesn’t mean a ton if the consumer doesn’t have a great perception of the company. However, good brand design can help build a solid foundation for a brand. If the brand is to be known for their scholastic wealth and achievements, you want to create something that gives off that feeling. If a brand has a product that is designed to make the consumer happy, don’t create or use anything that could do otherwise. Pick an idea or feeling and nail that down as best as possible. Designers can also contribute to branding through creating work that is consistent with the views and perception of the clients company. Something all designers (and companies, for that matter) must understand is good design equals good quality. When you really brand something in a consumers mind, it can really stand out for ever, for example color schemes and logos are really memorable and help create a good foundation or Paula Scher’s system design for the Modern Museum of Art utilized a fluid grid system to maintain brand interest.


start of branding. You want to keep this in mind so that you make something that can be easily remembered, rather than easily forgotten. When you are working for a company that isn’t quite new and isn’t quite old, just try to create something that follows along with the design and perception that they already have going on. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel (of course unless asked) but you should think of more creative ways to get across the same message they have. Most of the branding should come from the company—what do they stand for, what do the sell, who do they cater too—so hopefully for a good designer, branding should be a breeze, as far as logos and color schemes go. Designers can also contribute not just by the design but by the way in which the design and/or the company is presented. For example, if a company sells a product that needs packaging, what is the best kind of packaging for that product and how is it designed? Or even simply, should a company have a tri-fold brochure or just a simple sell sheet.


he conception of a corporate identity must be planned for all the information media which a firm uses for transacting its internal and external business. A basic idea must be sought which enables consistent, logical and functional answers to be found to the problems arising but it must do more than this: the conception, once found, must be capable of growing into a programme which retains its distinction in practice as the years go by and characterizes the philosophy of the firm. A particular difficulty arises from the fact that the conception must be suitable for functions which will only become apparent in the future. Grid planning must take account of type and colour problems at one and the same time. The conception of a corporate identity must have great flexibility so as to be equal to communication functions which are as yet unknown. In all the varied range of its application the corporate identity should always create a sense of tension and innovation. This is a demand which calls for a

very high order of intelligence, knowledge, ability and imagination on the part of the designer. The corporate identity of even a medium-sized firm comprises a large number of information vehicles which, assessed from the advertising point of view, are all capable of promoting the firm’s image: all forms of stationery for internal and external use, including letter and bill forms, delivery notes and order forms, trademarks, emblems, visiting cards, envelopes of various sizes, van liveries, labels, packages, brochures, catalogues, press advertisements, exhibitions, lettering on doors and premises, etc. Many large firms have recognized the importance of the idea of a corporate identity and called in highly qualified men and women to design it.


Principles of Design: Bringing

Order to Chaos with Grid Systems, Simon Martin, October 25, 2016



of the same size and in the same position on all pages, the same typeface being maintained throughout. SUBTITLES of the same size and in a position always the same distance from the preceding and the following text. CAPTIONS TO ILLUSTRATIONS all of the same size and arranged in the same relationship to the illustration. THE SAME GRIDS for text and pictures on all pages. DISPLAYS of the same size and arranged in the same relationship to the text. ILLUSTRATIONS photos, diagrams, statistics, etc. in grid-field sizes. PHOTOS should reflect the same photographic approach throughout insofar as illustrations must be objective they should be presented in the same style throughout. STATISTICAL MATERIAL should be displayed in the same form throughout. THE SAME COLOURS to be kept for the same types of content. THE LEADING to be kept the same throughout for all texts using the same size of type. TITLES

Pentagram’s brand design for the Minneapolis Institute of Art uses the logo to create a grid for the design of their icon system.


complete empty lines to be used for dividing the text but not half empty lines, otherwise the lines of the next column will no longer align. 1, 2 OR MORE

If a printed work is to be uniform in design throughout, the same grid and the same type sizes must be used for the cover as for the inside pages. For a design to follow consistent principles in all parts it is essential that the concept for the inside should be developed from the very outset along with that for the cover. The grid to be devised for this purpose must meet the needs of a striking cover as well as those of an objective and effective presentation of the subject inside the book. This is a task which confronts the designer with a number of additional problems and requires him to do some extra thinking if he is to come up with a solution which is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. It is hardly surprising, then, that the results we usually see are those in which the cover has been designed independently of the inside pages. Released from the need to adhere to the plan of the inside pages the imagination has greater scope with regard to the use of free forms and the number and selection of colours. Most designers favour this simpler method.

The MIA also creates consistency within their print collateral through the use of grid systems.



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GRIDS ARE ALL AROUND US —from the pages of a book, to the very streets we walk. If you look close enough, they can be found everywhere in the foundation of buildings, and in the human form. A grid, in its essence, is an invisible structure. Grids are the underlying principle that guide form and function, while also being a pivotal way to structure information and content in all forms of design, both twodimensional and three-dimensional. Subliminal Design: Revealing the Grid explores areas of design that utilize grid systems, while exposing the invisible patterns we interact with every day. Featuring articles and excerpts from designers of the past and present, this book promotes a humancentered approach to understanding design.

Subliminal Design: Revealing the Grid  

Grids are all around us—from the pages of a book, to the very streets we walk. If you look close enough, they can be found everywhere in the...

Subliminal Design: Revealing the Grid  

Grids are all around us—from the pages of a book, to the very streets we walk. If you look close enough, they can be found everywhere in the...