Grid systems in graphic design (1981)

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Excerpts from Josef Muller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems in Graphic Design: A Visual Communication Manual for Graphic Designers, Typographers and Three Dimensional Designers first published in 1981:

Foreword

Modern typography is based primarily on the theories and principles of design evolved in the 20′s and 30′s of our century. It was Mallarmé and Rimbaud in the 19th century and Apollinaire in the early 20th century who paved the way to a new understanding of the possibilities inherent in typography and who, released from conventional prejudices and fetters, created through their experiments the basis for the pioneer achievements of the theoreticians and practitioners that followed. (7)

The principle of the grid system presented in this book was developed and used in Switzerland after World War II. (ibid.)

But there was no publication that showed how the grid was constructed and applied, let alone how the design of the grid system was to be learned. This book is an attempt to close the gap. (8)

The book

The present volume [...] is intended to provide the designer operating in two and three dimensions with a practical working instrument which will enable him to handle visual problems and solve them in terms of conception, organization and design with greater speed and confidence. (9)

Grid and design philosophy

Design which is objective, committed to the common weal, well composed and refined constitutes the basis of democratic behaviour. [...] Work done systematically and in accordance with strict formal principles makes those demands for directness, intelligibility an dthe integration of all factors which are also vital in sociopolitical life. (10)

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 teh effect of work devised in a constructive and creative spirit. (10)

The typographic grid

Such a system of arrangement compels the designer to be honest in his use of design resources. It requires him to come to terms with the problem in hand and to analyse it. It fosters analytical thinking and gives the solution of the problem a logical and material basis. (11/12)

A suitable grid in visual design makes it easier a) to construct the argument objectively with the means of visual communication, b) to construct the text and illustrative material systematically and logically, c) to organize the text and illustrations in a compact arrangement with its own rhythm, d) to put together the visual material so that is is readily intelligible and structured with a high degree of tension. (12)

There are various reasons for using the grid as an aid in the organization of text and illustration:

i) economic reasons: a problem can be solved in less time and at a lower cost;

ii) rational reasons: both simple and complex problems can be solved in a uniform and characteristic style;

iii) mental attitude: the systematic presentation of facts, of sequences of events, and of solutions to problems should, for social and educational reasons, be a constructive contribution to the cultural state of society and an expression of our sense of responsibility. (ibid.)

What is the purpose of the grid?

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. (13)

Sizes of paper

The sheet is the basic form of each size. Folding the sheet once produces the folio or half-sheet, i.e. 2 leaves or 4 pages. The sheet folded four times produces the quatro, i.e. 4 leaves or 8 printed pages. (16)

The typographic measuring system

In traditional typogaphy using type of cast lead measurements are made in points not in cm. With the advent of photo-typesetting, typographic measures can be stated in mm and inches as well as points. (17)

Typeface alphabets

Knowledge of the quality of a typeface is of the greatest importance for the functional, aesthetic and psychological effect of printed matter. (19)

The Renaissance created midline typography which held its position until the 20th century. The new typography differs from the old in that it is the first to try to develop the outward appearance from the function of the text. (20)

The new typography uses the background as an element of design which is on a par with the other elements. Earlier typography (midline typography) played an active role against a dead, passive background. (ibid.)

Classic alphabets: Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, Clarendon, Berthold, Times, Helvetica, Univers

Width of column

Every difficulty standing in the reader’s way means loss of quality in communication and memorability. (30)

There is a rule which states that a column is easy to read if it is wide enough to accommodate an average of 10 words per line. (31)

Leading

Proper leading is one of the most important factors in obtaining a harmonious and functional type are which is aesthetically pleasing and will stand the test of time (34)

The great typographers knew and complied with the laws of typography which have remained unchanged for centuries. (37)

Margin proportions

A sensitive designer will always do his best to create the maximum tension in the proportions he chooses for his margins. (39)

Margins of the same size can never result in interesting page design; they always create an impression of indecision and dullness. (41)

Page numbers

From the psychological point of view a page number placed on the central axis has a static effect whereas one placed in the outer margins is dynamic (42)

Body and display faces

Under no circumstances must characters of the smae style of face be mixed with others. For example, no Helvetica with a Univers or a Garamond with a Bodoni. (45)

Construction of the type area

Before the type are can be determined, the designer must know how much text and illustrative matter must be accommodated in the printed work he has to design and of what nature it is. (49)

The format of the page and the size of the margins determin the size of the type are. The general aesthetic impression created depends on the quality of the proportions of the page format, the size of the type area, and the typography. (50)

Construction of the grid

[...] the upper and lower edges of the picture always align with the ascenders and descenders of the lines of text. (59)

In a sophisticated grid system not only the lines of text align with the pictures but also the caption and the display letters, titles and subtitles. (ibid.)

Type and picture area with 8 grid fields

The grid system place in the hands of the designer no more and no less than a serviceable instrument which makes it possible to create interesting, contrasting and dynamic arrangements of pictures and text but which is in itself fo guarantee of success. (75)

Type and picture area with 20 grid fields

The reader should be able to see at a glance the priorities allotted to the various items of information, i.e. his eye should be automatically guided by the special placing and accentuation of the text and picture elements. (76)

Many outstanding achievements in visual communication are due to simplicity, to the reduction of graphic resources to their bare essentials. (83)

Type and picture area with 32 grid fields

A design can be powerful and striking only if the designer limits himself intelligently to the minimum. (93)

Just in the allied fields of visual art –whether it be architecture, painting, sculpture, or product design– reduction to th ebasic necessities and the concentration of espression on essentials is the key to genuine and lasting achievements. (ibid.)

It is the aim of this book to show clearly how helpful, and indeed necessary, it is for the designer to investigate the virtues of standardization through th euse fo the grid system. (93)

The photograph in the grid system…

The illustration in the grid system…

Solid tint in the grid system…

Practical examples…

The grid system in corporate identity

The 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 enable 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 distincion in practice as the years go by and characterizes the philosophy of the firm. (133)

The grid in three-dimensional design…

Examples of exhibitions

[...]outstanding achievements which outlive a particular moment of time never fail to make an impression because they reflect the determination to find a solution which is carefully orchestrated throughout to bing all the visual media within one design. (149/50)

System of order in ancient and modern times

The desire to bring order to the bewildering confusion of appearances reflects a deep human need. (158)

The ‘modulor’ of Le Corbusier is a measure which he developed from mathematics and the proportions of the human figure. (160)

Emblems are the expressions of the will to attain a law-based formal quality wich is independent of time and transcends it. (162)

The demand for ordered structure and aesthetic quality is one which modern typography should also seek to satisfy but it is exposed to the risk of abuse in the interests of merely fashionable trends. (164)

Ornaments are most convincing when they are made of the same material as the building, figure in the building as structural elements or units, and appear on the surface of the building as projections or recesses, i.e. as positive or negative forms, matching in their formal conception the proportions of the building by assimilating them and interpreting and varying them in conformity with the logic of its architecture. (166)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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