Unit 1: Intro to Design
Unit 2: Figma Fundamentals
Unit 3: The Creative Process
Unit 4: Color Theory
Unit 5: Introduction to Illustrator
Unit 6: Typography
Unit 7: Layout
Unit 8: Typesetting
Unit 9: User Interface Design
Unit 10: Design Systems
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Print Grids

Grids are the foundation of all visual design. These invisible lines help organize elements on a page to create a clean, organized, and cohesive layout. Sticking to a grid will create safe designs, and it can eventually be boring to abide by the rules. But once you’ve mastered designing with grids, you can break the system.

In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the history of grids, the types of grids, and how to create them.

First, let’s take a look at the history of grids.

The History of Grids

Renaissance paintings are famous for using perspective. Many paintings included a subtle grid that started in the center of the artwork and extended to the edges, which makes them look very symmetrical. Masolino Da Panicale’s painting, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha (1426-27) is heavily reliant on perspective. You’ll notice this mainly on the lines of the buildings in the foreground. We can create imaginary lines, and they all meet in the center of the painting.

Masolino Da Panicale, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha (1426-27)

Ancient manuscripts contained help lines or what we now call a baseline grid. These lines helped scribes create straight and evenly spaced lines of text in order to be readable as manuscripts were handwritten. The first western book printed with movable type, the Gutenberg Bible (1455), used a two-column grid on each page.

Another concept, which started in the 13th century, was the golden rectangle. The diagram was developed by an architect called Villard De Honnecourt. It consisted of a page divided into logical and harmonious parts. So if you resized the diagram to a page, it would provide you with a fixed margin that was considered visually harmonious to its size.

The Early 20th Century

Earlier adopters of the grid and where it’s more evident are De Stijl and the Bauhaus movements. The discovery and use of the grid catapulted modernism and minimalism not only in graphic design but in many other forms of art. De Stijl proposed ultimate abstraction to express the utopian idea of harmony and order by using simple geometric forms and pure colors. De Stijl was also the name of a magazine that Theo Van Doesburg, founder of the movement, published. The layout was one of the most significant works of graphic design that influenced its development in history.

Theo Van Doesburg, publication design of De Stijl

The Bauhaus movement used a philosophical approach in its discipline. It developed in three different cities in Germany and, while short-lived due to the Nazi political party, it had a big influence on the art and design field. The Bauhaus movement focused on functionality and taking down the elitist idea of art. Herbert Bayer’s poster includes the Bauhaus logo designed by Oskar Schlemmer. The logo is a clear representation of what the Bauhaus stood for. The poster is clearly grid-based down to the geometric sans serif type. 

Herbert Bayer poster design for the Bauhaus School

The Swiss Take Over

Inspired by the modernist ideas from the early 20th Century, the Swiss style found beauty in simplicity. Grid systems came in full force during the 1940s and 1950s to help create a logical organization of information on a page. Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann are a couple of creators of the well-known International Typographic Style. Both used strict grids but allowed themselves to create playful layouts by rotating type, using colors and sometimes a few supporting elements. Josef Müller-Brockmann released a book called Grid Systems in which he provides guidelines and rules for different systems. While the text was written way before computers existed, it still remains one of the most important graphic design works that help us understand design.

Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems book

Next, let’s talk about the different types of grids we can use for different types of designs.

First, let’s look at the simplest grid – the One-Column Manuscript Grid.

One-Column Manuscript Grid

The manuscript grid is structurally the simplest kind of grid. Its job is to accommodate extensive text—like and essay or manuscript.

The Manuscript Grid is the foundation for all magazine, newspaper, ebook and all text-based design. The manuscript grid layout design is set up on the first page. The rest of the pages will follow the same measurements. It’s good practice to keep the manuscript grid consistent inside one document design. Even if there are elements bleeding off the edge, like a shape or a photograph, the grid will still be there to help keep a good balance for the entire design.

Often the only structure is a text block and margins and/or columns. When working with a manuscript grid take care to build in plenty of white space so that the composition is not page after page of grey.

The other thing to remember is that often the line length will mean a little extra leading needs to be added to help with readability.

Depending on the layout of other elements or the need for book binding, designers may use asymmetrical manuscript grid for print design that needs binding or symmetrical manuscript grid for design that doesn’t need binding.

Next, let’s look at something a little bit more complex – the Multi-Column Grid.

Multi-Column Grid

Column grids are used to organize elements into columns. Magazines use column grids to place the text in easy-to-read sections. Some academic textbooks also use them. Column grids are used inside websites as well, like in online newspapers or blogs.

Column grids can have as little as two columns or as many as six or more. In web design, the column grid can go up to 12 columns, which we will explore more in detail in the next lesson.

Text and images in a column grid are placed following the vertical lines and flowlines that make up the columns. Images can be placed inside one column, or across two or more to create a different visual layout. The spacing between columns, which is called gutters, should be proportional and consistent throughout the entire document.

A symmetric column grid has all columns the same width, while an asymmetric grid will have some columns proportionally thinner or wider than others.

Printed newspapers usually use a symmetric column grid to organize their stories.

Websites and other printed design may use an asymmetric column grid. In this example, we can see that the designer used a twelve-column grid with some columns being combined into larger areas: the blog post content on the left is roughly taking up two-thirds of the width while the sidebar on the right taking up one-third.

For a basic print column grid, there are many ways to use it. In this example, the designer used one column for image and two columns for text on the left side. On the right side, the designer combined two columns for an image while distributing three columns of text that is wrapped around it.

Next, let’s talk about another type of grid called the Modular Grid.

Modular Grid

A modular grid is similar to a column grid in that it has columns, but it also has rows. This kind of grid is used when there are more elements to organize and a column grid isn’t enough.

Newspapers use column and modular grids to organize the stories comfortably and easy to read. Modular grids have equal size modules. This makes it easier to “break the rules” and use the spatial zones in different ways.

Modular grids are also great for laying out forms, charts and schedules. They are also used a lot in e-commerce websites. Your phone homepage that shows all the apps, has a modular grid. Instagram also uses a modular grid to show your feed.

Baseline Grid

A baseline is the line where text sits. Leading is the spacing between baselines. A baseline grid can be applied to any of the grids we just mentioned. Using a baseline grid will give a flowing rhythm to the text. It will also give the headings and subheadings a proportional space in relation to the body text, making them more pleasing to the reader.

There is a baseline grid in something you used a lot during school and might still be using now. Lined notebooks have a baseline grid. It’s no wonder teachers always wanted us to write on notebook paper instead of white paper. It kept a good rhythm in our written assignments. Unless of course our handwriting was really tiny or really huge, and then the rhythm went out the door.

If you look closely at this piece of written notebook paper you will see that it also has a document grid that creates margins.

A baseline grid is great to use in multi-column documents because it makes the text much easier for the reader to follow.

How to Construct a Grid

If you are interested in using grids in your design, make sure to use a grid even before setting up the document. If you have a sketching and planning phase, this is where a grid should first appear. Once you are ready to move to digital, you can set up grids easily in InDesign. When you create a new document, you can already create multiple columns to help you organize content from the get-go.

If you wish to add modular grids, head over to Layout > Create Guides. In the option window you’ll be able to select the number of rows you’d like to add. For instance, below we added 5 rows over the 3 columns we created at the beginning of the document. 

To create a baseline grid, you’ll need to know what font, size, and line space or leading you’ll be using. In this case, I’ll be using Bw Nista Grotesk at 10 pt size and 12 pt leading. Head over to Preferences by pressing Command-K. Select the Grids option from the menu on the left side. Under Baseline Grid, set Increment Every to 12 pt. 

In the document, press Option-Command-‘ to bring up the Baseline Grid. If the baseline grid doesn’t align with the horizontal grids, feel free to change the rows and gutter values. Select the text box, head over to the Paragraph panel and select the Align to Baseline Grid button.

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