The Grid: The Structure of Design

While doing research on the web for this column, I came across a professor's handout on design fundamentals. The lead paragraph talks about applying basic design principles every time you design a page. He says, "If you follow them, your pages will have consistently sound designs. Violate them frequently, and you will be looking for another line of work."

That's a blunt bottom line. While it's a little dramatic, I like the bravado. Having a strong foundation in design principles will make you a better designer.

Using a grid is one of those basic design principles. Most news designers are working with a grid someone else designed. No matter what you think about it, you need to understand how to use it. And, at some point in your career you will likely be called upon to create a grid for a new section, or to do a re-design for a paper.

A grid is made up of vertical and horizontal lines and is the foundation of nearly every type of visual media. The structure is there to shape the content into proportions that are pleasing to the eye. Use of the grid is nothing new. Artists have used the grid structure for centuries.

For the purposes of this column, I won't delve into the history of the grid. But history is useful. See the list of links at the bottom for more information. This is a nuts-and-bolts guide for creating and using a grid.

There are many considerations you must take into account before you sit down and draw out a grid. Who is the audience? What is the voice of the paper? What sizes of typefaces are we planning to use? What are our standard ad sizes? How can I make content the most readable? The list goes on.

Once you've answered these questions, you can build a foundation that structures content while remaining flexible. What is the most important job of the grid? To be an invisible element that gives structure and consistency to your content.

Some things to consider:
• You can have more than one grid. Your front page could be based on a five column grid while inside pages with ads on a six column. There is no one right way.

• To add flexibility you can break the grid down into 10 or 12 columns. Half-columns are a good place to anchor mug-shots, refers, and other info.

• Think about the grid not only vertically but horizontally, too.

• Build in white space. This can be a hot button topic in newsrooms, but the proof is in the prototype. Adding just a little more space in alleys/gutters and between stories will add add emphasis to the story, and improve readability.

Broadsheet Grids
Grids for broadsheet pages can vary from a basic five or six column grid, to more intricate grids that break down into half-columns, or grids within grids. Many papers have gone to a 50-inch web in an effort to reduce newsprint usage. The narrower format can have its challenges, especially if you are mandated to use seven columns, but any challenges can be overcome by how you create the architecture of your grid. Read more about adapting to the 50-inch web in this piece by Warren Watson of the American Press Institute.









 




Using a vertical and horizontal grid is ideal for creating a consistently clean-looking product.

This detail of the horizontal grid shows how elements align on the baseline grid. This is a simplified way of using a horizontonal grid, but nonetheless effective. In tabloid or magazine formats, there is often a greater use of horizontal grids, as seen in the example of Clarin/VIVA from Argentina.














If you run promos across the bottom or top of the page, the grid can be broken down ever further to 20 columns to add flexibility while retaining consistency. If promos run down the side of your page, rely on your horizontal structure to guide those elements.






Advertising is usually set up to work on a six column grid. However, some newspapers use a five column grid for open pages. The wider column measure allows for more characters of type per line, aiding readability. This is especially an issue for papers using a narrower 50-inch web.



I hope this very basic overview is helpful to you, and please share your experiences in the feedback area.

RESOURCES
It's difficult to find books that examine grids in detail, especially for newspapers. The list below contains books that I've found useful for understanding this important design element.

The Grid by Allen Hurlburt
A classic easily found at online booksellers.
ISBN: 047128923X

How to Design Grids by Alan Swann
Out of print, but can be found through used booksellers online.

The Newspaper Designer's Handbook, by Tim Harrower
Information about the book and where to get it are available at http://www.timharrower.com/handbook.htm

Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller-Brockmann.
I haven't read this book, but it gets good reviews.
ISBN: 3721201450

Geometry in Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition by Kimberly Elam
A good history lesson and a good explanation of the relationship of proportion in design and nature. A good buy, too.
ISBN: 1568982496

A History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs
If you haven't read it, read it. If you have, re-read it.
ISBN: 0471291986

  • Anne Van Wagener

    Anne is an adjunct faculty member for visual journalism, and is design editor for online/marketing at Poynter.

    She writes about design, information graphics, photojournalism, web design, and interactive media for Poynter Online in a column called The Design Desk. See full bio.

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