Author: Jacci Howard Bear
Grids : Flexible Options
Choosing the Right Grid Makes All the Difference
Choose a grid based on the content and adjust content based on the grid
The right grid offers the designer flexibility without overwhelming them with possibilities. The right grid also enhances organization and makes it easy for the viewer or reader to understand the content.
There are no right or wrong grids, simply grids that are more suitable for different content and design objectives. Of course that doesn’t help you much when you’re staring at a blank page and a deadline. Here are some “thinking points” to help you plan your grid and your design.
- Content or Page Elements.
Is the publication heavy on text or heavy on graphics? Will there be many headlines, rules, illustrations, pull-quotes?
Look at both amount of text and how it is broken down — long articles, lots of short articles, a mix of long and short articles. How many subheads? Will you use eyebrows, decks, initial caps, and other visual cues?
- Photos and Illustrations.
Are there similarities in the type of illustrations or size of photos? Can photos be grouped by size or type? Are there a lot of rectangular elements or many irregularly shaped elements?
Generally the larger the number of grid units (and the smaller the individual units) the more design options are available. However, too many options can destroy the underlying unity that the grid provides.
So, which grid is best? Here are some guidelines (remember, I said guidelines not rules).
- Lots of text with few graphics — such as a book with long chapters and few or no illustrations — can use a simpler grid. 1 – 3 units, perhaps.
- A newsletter, brochure, or magazine with many photographs usually requires a grid with many smaller units to give more possiblities for placing and sizing the photographs.
- Newsletters, because they generally have more text, often use a columnar grid.
- 1, 2, and 3 column grids are common. Each can accommodate lots of text, especially long articles.
- 4 or more columns offer greater flexibility for publications with text, photos, and other graphic elements and a mix of long and short articles.
- Grids based on an even number of grid columns can suffer from too much symmetry if text and graphics are confined to individual or double grid columns throughout.
- Newsletter don’t have to be tied to columnar grids. A newsletter consisting of mostly small articles or “news briefs” and photos could use a 6(2×3), 9(3×3), or 12(3×4) unit grid of rectangular or square units quite nicely.
Grids don’t have to limit design
Grids can feel stifling. But they needn’t be.
- Layouts based on grids are not appropriate in all cases.
- Grids should fit the mix of elements rather than forcing elements to fit the grid.
Elements on your page do not have to be confined to individual grid units. In a five-column grid, 5 narrow columns of text can be hard to read. Try two columns of text, each spanning two grid units with an empty grid unit for accents, photos, breathing room, or adjacent caps. (see previous feature on Finetuning Initial Caps)
Resize photos to fill 2-3 or more grid units. You don’t have to always fill the entire grid unit either. Fill 2 1/2 grid units with a photo, leaving some extra white space.
Gutters and margins are not off-limits. Bleed photos off the edge of the page. You don’t have to fill every little grid unit. The odd column in a 5 or 7 column newsletter grid can offer extra “thumb space” along the outer edges. There are many ways to add white space to your designs — leaving some grid units open is one way.
If one grid is good, two could be better
Some publications use mixed grids. A different grid than what is used through much of the publication might be appropriate to present content that varies greatly from the rest of the pages. It is also okay to mix grid systems within the same page.
- A text heavy newsletter might group all photos and illustrations on a single page. The text pages can use a simple grid. The multiple photos might require a more complex arrangement.
- Use two different grids to differentiate sidebar or secondary items from primary articles.
- Mix long and short articles in the same publication using a different grid for each. Or use different grids for feature material and regular recurring departments.
As with any grid system, use it consistently. Let content guide your design and make your grid a partner in your page layout — not a dictator.
This series is only an introduction. But if it has helped you to understand the basics of design grids, given you ideas, or inspired you to find out more — then it’s done just what I intended.