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on 20 November 2005
I became aware of how important grids are when I was at art college and came across the first issue of a new design magazine, 'New Graphic Design' in 1958. Published in Switzerland in English, German and French and containing dozens of pictures, without a strict grid all the issues of this stunning publication would look a mess. The grid, put simply is a framework which allows several elements (photos, graphics, text, display type etc) to be placed in a rectangle and all work towards one aim, clarity of presentation. Virtually all publications use a grid (in its simplest form it could be called the type area) check out the page number position in a magazine, always in the same place defined by the grid.
Having used grids for years I'm surprised that there is so much confusion but that was before I read through Kimberley Elam's book. The straightforward becomes the obscure despite the good intentions. The most useful parts are the pages that use a see-through overlay, revealing the essence of the grid and nicely some disasters, too. What could be simpler than the two examples shown on page thirty-eight and nine, Christof Gassner's 1960 redesign of one page of a theater program, from the dull and confusing to something so elegant and simple. What is really interesting about the page is that it is all done with type only. Page forty-five uses another overlay for the contents spread of a book (designed by Drenttel Doyle Partners in 1988) the see-through reveals a simple grid but the actual spread is a complete mess with type everywhere, even the three words 'Table of contents' is letterspaced in two typefaces, roman and sans.
The two examples of the grid I've mentioned perhaps sum up the problems that a reader of this book might have, most of the European grid examples shown use the grid to simplify the placing of all the elements on a page, especially the typography. The American examples show basic grid versions that are virtually ignored when it comes to placing the page elements. This becomes evident in the last pages of the book where thirty-four design thumbnails are shown, one would not know they conform to any grid at all as each example shows a mixture of display type, text setting and graphics in no coherent order, in fact the very opposite of what a grid is supposed to do with these same elements. Perhaps the key element in any publication grid is the size of the text and headline types, because these (especially the text size) remain the same on every page and other elements, photos and graphics, need to be positioned within the grid defined by the typography.
I think 'Grid Systems' is pretty hopeless in explaining the virtues of this essential design format and strangely there is a real dearth of titles about the subject, perhaps it's just a bit too narrow or technical for most graphic art publishers. The great Swiss designer Josef Muller-Brockmann explains it all in his excellent 'Grid Systems in Graphic Design' (ISBN 3721201450) though it's not mentioned in the bibliography of 'Grid Systems' but two of his other books are.