On Grid System in Graphic Design
Grid System in Graphic Design is what novice designers wish to learn and understand. Courses, skill-sharing videos, etc. oftentimes allude to Grid System as a magical tool, which is tricky to grasp, yet fundamental to all those who practice Graphic Design. Needless to say, they have to blend in additional elements to attract students. Over time, the true concept of Grid System is lost, then replaced by mythical stories of drawing squares so that a design possesses more substance. And in the effort of searching for ways to draw such squares, a designer either becomes fixated on Grid System, self-deluding that he/she is taking hold of the secret of the universe, or completely gainsays its existence.
First of all, let’s take a look back on Grid System’s history. One may say, all began on a beautiful day in Berlin, 1928, when a German designer named Jan Tschichold published the book “Die Neue Typographie” (The New Typography), which was inspired by Bauhaus’s Russian Constructivism exhibition. Tschichold believed, graphic design’s power can be standardized into typographic and layout rules. This book is extremely influential to later generations’ designers, and is one of the books that made Swiss Design the International Style. Note that, during this time, the term “Grid System” had yet to be conceived.
Decades later, another designer named Müller-Brockmann, a talented Swiss designer who, having been inspired by “Die Neue Typographie”, produced materials on legitimizing Grid System, turning it into a rule of layout management in the books: “Neue Grafik design journal” (1958 – 1965), “The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems” (1961), and “Grid Systems in Graphic Design” (1981). It was these very books on Grid System of his that brought to us the term “Grid System”, being discussed as of now.
So what have we learned? The first thing is: Graphic Design had existed long before Grid System, and as we have seen, Design prior to Grid System was doing well. Thus the idea “a designer must first know Grid System before being one” is false. A graphic designer is a graphic designer and nothing can change that, be it the Grid System, Golden Ratio, Rule of Thirds, credentials, etc.
If I may, then the very Müller-Brockmann’s words from “Grid Systems in Graphic Design” (1981): “The grid system places in the hands of the designer no more & no less than a serviceable instrument which makes it possible to create an interesting, contrasting & dynamic arrangement of pictures & text but which itself no guarantee of success”.
Therefore, Grid System is not as magical as the majority of us have imagined, and Grid System is not something that makes creating a fine layout a certainty. What a designer needs instead, is to organised, and to weave visual elements together in a logical manner, like when we arrange a towel, a pen, a bottle of water, a book on a table, without knowing that we should not place the bottle of water near the book (in case of spillage), and the towel is not to be put atop the bottle (unaesthetic), and put not the book on the pen (low detect-ability). In design, similar relationships such as those (visuals and text) are obscure, hence the emergence of Grid System which acts as a glue sticking all visual elements as a whole, forming relationships between them. Bear in mind, however, that what constitutes a graphic designer is intuition, or the sense for design (detail in note: Design Anthropology: an Introduction. Here is an excerpt by Mr. Brockmann from “Grid Systems”:
“Even in the simplest solutions, the designer needs a good sense of composition & a feeling for the rhythm sequence of picture & text.”
However, if one asks me (Huy), whether we should know Grid System, the answer is yes. Why? Because even if designers do not require Grid System to be designers, Grid System will render everything more feasible. Grid System regulates Design, at the same time opening up a horizon of solutions for layouts. Paul Rand’s citation from his [book] “Paul Rand: Conversations with Students”:
“The idea of the grid is that it gives you a system of order and still gives you plenty of variety.”
Grid System was created with the mindset: approach design only if you practice it. Particularly within today’s context, as designers can design in haste, with too many elements, the Grid’s “Design Regulation” role comes into force better than ever. And to encourage designers to use Grid, despite which being not a godly tool, is to encourage order, logic, and creativity of the Graphic Designers. It is the reason why Muller-Brockmann wrote books on Grid System, and that was why Swiss Design became the International Style.
Another mistake regarding Grid is “break the grid”. Apparently, the birth of the book “Making and Breaking the Grid” gave rise to the term “Break the Grid”, which became eminent unlike nothing before. This is a good visual book which demonstrates to us the Grid System behind every design; in my view, however, this book is but for show, for its conveyance is unclear, and I am not in favor of coining the term “Break the Grid”. The reason is because this term is far too confusing, which is detrimental to inexperienced designers. According to Paul Rand, in “Paul Rand: Conversations with Students”:
“The purpose is to adhere to Grid, and to perform it correctly. The reason for many wanting to break the Grid is because they know not what the hell to do in adherence to it”.
If we just break then lay out, then break then lay out, and so forth, nothing is going to change; this process will go on incessantly to no end. Eventually, Grid is all about Unity and Variety (Kroeger, 2008). We can easily visualize as follows, a circle in a grid module can be arranged in various ways, be it figure 1, figure 2 or figure 3 – as it becomes a colored square, while grid itself does not change, only its interior, and that’s what makes a design alive.
KROEGER, M., & RAND, P. (2008). Paul Rand: conversations with students. New York, Princeton Architectural Press.
MÜLLER-BROCKMANN, J. (2015). Grid systems in graphic design: a visual communication manual for graphic designers, typographers and three dimensional designers = Rastersysteme für die visuelle Gestaltung. Sulgen [u.a.], Niggli.