Grids are the basis of every design. Before I introduce any principles to you, I want to show you how behind every great design is a grid, and how you can create and utilize these yourself. I must say, however, that grids aren’t mandatory in any way; if you find that a grid is not working for you, abandon it and try something else. Grids exist only to aid and accelerate the design process.
We’ve already seen that people like patterns and logical structure a lot. A grid is the ultimate tool to achieving such pleasing and understandable designs, while at the same time giving you lots of room for creativity and variation. A well-constructed grid encourages designers to vary scale and placement of elements, without relying solely on arbitrary or whimsical judgments.
A grid provides a starting point, converting a blank canvas into a structured field. By dividing space into numerous equal units, the edges of the composition become just as important as the centre. Grids encourage designers to create open and dynamic compositions without turning it into a complete mess.
Types of Grids
So far I’ve assumed you’re familiar with grids being horizontal and vertical lines dividing a composition into smaller and smaller squares. While this is perhaps the simplest and most popular use, there are lots of different types of grids, which all provide the same benefits in their own way.
These five types are:
- Regular: The type of grid everybody is familiar with; straight horizontal and vertical lines positioned at regular intervals.
- Angled: A variation on the regular grid, where horizontal and/or vertical lines are angled instead of straight. A simple but powerful variation on the basic grid. Works best if the angle is bigger than 30 degrees.
- Circular: Bigger and bigger circles around the centre, accompanied by diagonal lines running through that same centre. Actually quite easy to work with, if you’re going for a dynamic and organic design.
- Organic: Instead of straight horizontal and vertical lines, the lines are curvilinear. Tricky to get right.
- Irregular: Instead of placing lines or curves at regular intervals, they are placed irregularly. Very tricky to get right.
Of course, you can use even more grids within the global grid, which are called local grids. This is, again, helpful to keep complex designs simple and structured. That, however, will only be the case if those local grids fit well together with the global grid. For example, if you used a regular, rectangular grid for the whole composition, and an irregular local grid on every element, things would still look like they were arbitrarily placed. Local grids are awesome, but watch out you don’t take it too far.
A grid can work quietly in the background, or it can be obvious or clearly visible in a design. In the first case, the grid still influences a lot of the design decision and overall feeling of the composition, but people can’t really point out the grid you used from looking at your design. In the second case, the grid becomes an active element within a design, and the visual properties assigned to the grid play an even bigger role.
When a grid works quietly in the background, it provides more flexibility and more opportunities to break out of the grid and do special things. When the grid is clearly visible – which could be by actually drawing it into the composition, or showing parts of it through other elements – you’ll need to adhere to it much more. Neither way is better than the other – it’s a stylistic choice.
The type of grid you choose to use should naturally come forth from the meaning or narrative of the design. If your style is modern and formal, for example, it would be unwise to choose an organic grid.
The lines and intersections that result from the grid should be used for the position and scale of elements. The lines can be used for the edges of shapes, actually visible lines within the composition, or simply aligning elements. The intersections are usually great places to position or centre elements.
On top of that, grids help you create active and asymmetric compositions, for you can visually balance the elements by counting how many space they take up in the grid. In doing so, grids also provide an opportunity for you to leave more areas open or empty, rather than filling up the whole page.
Either way, a designer uses a grid actively and not passively. It’s often helpful to let the grid suggest the shapes and placements, instead of doing what’s fixed inside your head. Newspapers, for example, use the same grid on every page but with slight variations on the size and position of tiles, as required by the different lengths of articles. Similarly, webpages are dynamic and can extend infinitely vertically, which means the grid used for layout is mainly concerned with horizontal placement and allows the rest to vary.
Lastly, you might be wondering: how do grids help with design that’s not printed or on a page? Well, a three-dimensional design still has a surface you can use a grid for. And, if the design consists of multiple three-dimensional objects, you can use a grid on the floor to determine how they should be placed.