Grid Systems

Grids help us shape systems, by giving us a structure. They help to manage content. When information is complex, a hierarchy puts the information in order and makes the data comprehensive.

The grid system is used for advertising and editorial design, where we can see typography, shapes and photography placed in a systematic way. Designers build this visual system using grids.

What are the advantages?

  • helps with reading the content
  • creates harmony across a publication for example, adding aesthetic value
  • adding breathing space between content makes it less condensed.
  • creating rational organisation is useful in brochure and magazine design. Planning a space for images and a space for content makes the reader’s work easier and the designer’s work easier.

Massimo Vignelli

I looked at his work briefly last week, when talking about the design of the New York subway system. Below is the front cover of thr tabloid, designed by Vigneilli in 1978.

In this example, the grid is made obvious by the thick dividing lines across the page. These are known as flowlines (rules separating the page). These work as boundaries that divide the spread. We can clearly pick out the spatial zones in this layout. Spacial zones divide the information into separate zones, for example we can clearly see one area used for the heading, one section for images and so on.

Skyline, No. 1, April 1, 1978 Massimo Vignelli, Lella Vignelli

The calander uses the grid in an obvious way. The flowlines are placed evenly across the spread. This creates a sense of order. Placing the images randomly amongst the text helps keep the page intereseting to look at. This assymetry is important to balance out the evenly spaced rows of information.

Skyline, April 1979: calendar

In the below spread, the grid is used to structure the information. I can see an underlying grid where the page is divided into thirds. The white space on the bottom right allows the eye to rest and prevents the spread looking crowded.

Grids are a loose set of rules. They are not an absolute rigid guide. If a layout is too structural, people get tired/bored.

Vignelli’s Unigrid for America’s National Park system, gave him more flexibility.

Vignelli’s Unigrid

Josef Muller-Brockmann

Muller Brockmann was a big fan of using the grid system.

The designer’s work should have the clearly intelligable objective, functional and aesthetic quality of mathmatical thinking.

The Typographic Grid, Josef Muller Brockmann

Muller Brockmann has carefully balanced the elements in this poster. The shapes on the right make the right side busy, but the text on the left means that both the left and right sides are balanced.

The gaps between the words align to show an underlying grid. This grid helps to unify the information, considering 5 different colours have been used.

Muller Brockmann’s Beethoven poster uses a more unusual grid. The edges of the shapes line up with the edges of text to draw the eye to one point of the poster.

This centre point is shown in the image below:

Müller-Brockmann’s Beethoven Poster Geometric Analysis by Kimberly Elam


Grids reduce a designer’s options, which saves time. You don’t need to make decisions at the start of every project if you use the grid system as guidance.

Mikhail A. Kločko, “Un Sovietico in Cina” I Gabbiani 9, July 1964 (1a edizione)

‘The whole dust jacket, in a light gray, is divided into bands of 6 silver colored rulers. Each band contains information about the book: on the cover author, title, publisher, collection (name of the series), price and “topic”; on the back a biographical note on the author, a summary of the book and a description of the I Gabbiani series in addition to the repetition of price and topic.’

Modulor Man by Le Corbusier

‘The Modulor was meant as a universal system of proportions. The ambition was vast: it was devised to reconcile maths, the human form, architecture and beauty into a single system.’

Le Corbusier used these proportions within his architecture. It is based on the golden ratio.

Golden ratio

The grid is one of the most helpful inventions in graphic design.

It follows universal law – since grids can be found all around us. One example is in honeycomb.

The golden ratio has been described as an equation that produces beauty in a design. It is found in famous artworks and in nature. The same principle can be applied in graphic design.

Rule of thirds

I know this grid from learning photography at college. By dividing the space into thirds, we are left with 9 equal sized areas. In photography, it is recommended to place the main subject at an intersection beteen 4 of the lines.

Design by Sam Cooper

In graphic design, using the rule of thirds means directing the focus to a spot that would lie at an intersection on a rule of thirds grid. For example, the corner of the black rectangle on this poster leading to the text on a third.

Musica viva, 1957, poster by Josef Muller Brockmann

In this poster, Muller Brockmann has counter-balanced the position of the main content with the simple line drawing at the bottom of the poster.

Grid systems in typography

These letterforms designed by Albrecht Durer in 1525, were based on human proportions.
Olivetti, alphabet for the 7×9 matrix printer, 1972

Olivetti took the structure of the grid and used it to create type, in a similar way that latin letters have been designed. Instead of straight lines and angles, Olivetti constructed his letterforms from a grid of circles. He was able to form each letter from the choice of circles he has included. The use of circles doesn’t interfere with our ability to understand the type. This may be due to the number and size of the circles.

Josef Albers type design, 1926

(Above) Josef Albers’ design for the Universal Typeface, known in the Bauhaus movement. As you can see from the grid paper he has used for the design, there is a system to this typeface. This alphabet has been constructed from rectangles, circles, semi-circles and quarter-circles. The same pieces have been used across the different letters.

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie

Mondrian used mathmatical structure within his paintings. The colour of the above painting makes the work fun and playful, which is enhanced by the contrast with this grid structure.

Workshop 2: Systems of Order

This afternoon’s digital workshop required us to use adobe Illustrator and we were invited to think outside the box. The task was to design a grid, using a given image.

Aim and brief-

‘The aim of this workshop is to familiarize yourself with
the idea of finding systems of order within different
subjects, not concerning communication design.
Nature as well as artificial structures could function as
an inspiration for the construction of layout systems.’

These examples demonstrated the way we could use the rule of thirds within our designs.

I chose the below image to base my grid on:

Marcel Breuer- Pirelli Building

We based these designs around a given quote:

Order is the actual key of life!

Le Corbusier

Workshop steps:

  1. Smart guides on
  2. Import the photo (can use a section of the image) make image larger than the page.
  3. Select both shape and image – Command + 7 or Object > Clipping mask > make
  4. Layers. Bottom layer for the photo (layer 1), double click to rename. Press plus to add layers (layer 2 for guide/grid)
  5. Lock photo layer so its not in the way
  6. On the grid layer, draw over the picture – following the lines on the photo
  7. Option & Shift to duplicate lines
  8. Select lines > view guides > make guides
  9. Can change colour of guides, Illustrator preference > guide & grids
  10. Make sure guides are locked, View > guides > lock guides or right-click and lock guides
  11. Duplicate artboard- select it > artboard tool > press option + shift to the side (when guides are unlocked, otherwise the guides won’t transfer onto the duplicated artboard).

I made variations of this grid.

Project #4 Drawing with a grid

Project #3 Invited us to think about getting an idea onto paper: how we could visualise an object – in this case my leaf – and produce a visual record. Paper and pencil is one way, and it works for many cirumstances. For example, a straight-forward illustration for a story or educating people about leaf anatomy.

Project #4 required me to think in a different way. This time, I needed to translate my object onto a grid. This brings to mind the pixelated animations in early video games.

These animations were in no way impressive, back then and to the modern eye. But they worked because they simplified the objects and in most cases, this was enough for the imagination to make up the rest. The resemblance wasn’t always perfect.

An example of these early graphics is the game Fishing Derby, released in 1980 for the Atari console. The cover illustration shows us the narrative of the game. Below, you can see the actual gameplay, where this story is translated into this primitive animation. Simplified, yes, but it works. I can understand what every shape is supposed to represent.

Screenshot from Outlaw. Another Atari game, this one realeased in 1976. These graphics are really successful in my opinion. The cowboy hats and guns represent cowboys, but incase you weren’t sure, the image of the cactus tells us the location and combines with our association of cowboys.

link here

While in a vintage toy rabbit hole, I came across the Lite Brite toy. I remember this toy in my distant memories, but never knew the name of it. The toy allows you to use lightbulbs to create pictures.

Secondary Research

I wondered how I could simplify a shape and still make it readable. I began to explore how designers apply similar methods to type.

I looked at type that has been constructed using a grid and appears with this pixel style.


The design studio Rosetta have come up with Gridlite PE. This is a typeface that utilises a grid structure.

‘Gridlite, an experiment with a modular negative space, is a simplified and monospaced variable font ready to be animated, typed, scaled up, scaled down, rounded, or otherwise deformed. It sports variable axes to control the size of the elements, their shape, and the background.’

I can envision this type being adapted to a physical mosaic, using tiles for example to spell the words. The grid structure means it can be easily drawn up and converted into other uses. I like the clarity and neatness of this type (below).

Rosetta – Gridlite PE (

The type reminds me of the computer game ‘Snake’ (below). Maybe because of this association, I see the type as moving.

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‘Magic’ variable of Gridlite PE by Rosetta.
Nigel Cottier – Letterform Variations

In the book Letterform Variations, Cottier explores different ways of forming letters of the alphabet. He uses the grid system and other shapes to form the letters. In table below, we can see the 16 variations of forming a given letter. By starting with the simplest form on the left column, he abstracts the shape further, pushing what can be recognisable as that given letter.

For the ‘H’, he plays with rotation as well. I would not have considered rotating the letter, since we write from left to right and top to bottom in a typical page of text.

For the ‘I’, he even leaves a gap in the letterform. The ‘I’ is still recognisable despite this gap.

I find the numerals easier to decipher at a glance. I’m not sure why this is.

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Wim Crouwel

Crouwel was an experimental graphic designer, born in 1928. He was a leading figure in modern Dutch design.

Typography must be visually orderly for the purpose of good readability.

Wim Crouwel

He designed ‘new alphabet’ which was considered not useful for everyday use because of its low legibility. His typefaces were designed to be used for a computer display, since the grid use meant that these typefaces could be applied to a computer pixel by pixel.

New alphabet typeface by Wim Crouwel
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Vormgevers Designculture • Wim Crouwel

The above poster for an exhibition in 1968, makes use of the grid to compose each letter. I like the cut-out corners and the way they are rounded. The result is playful and futuristic.

Other simplified/ modular typefaces

I looked at more typefaces that could be described as modular fonts. This means the letters have been broken down into smaller parts.

A modular typeface is an alphabet constructed out of a limited number of shapes or modules. Modular describes any letter assembled from a limited palette of distinct elements, repeated, flipped and flopped but not scaled. Typically these elements are geometric and simple in shape—square pixels on a digital display or modernist circles, squares, and lines.

Typography 01

I was also reminded of the plastic alphabet stencils used in school. The letters are broken apart from necessity. Only the letters with a central cut-out area are constructed from 2 parts.

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TT Mercury Blob Normal Lower font

I find the above and below fonts (Mercury blob and Moonbase alpha) easier to read from further away! This is probobly because the pixels merge optically, giving them a more solid appearance at a distance.

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Moonbase Aplha typeface by Cornel Windin
Modular type designed by Deviantart user Final-Ressurection

Modular typography- addictedtotype

This design uses a 3 x 3 grid to construct the alphabet. I find some of the letters more legible than others. For example, I only recognise the ‘M’, in the context of the rest of the alphabet. If I had seen this shape alone, I’m not sure I would have read it as an ‘M’, or even as a letter.

Primary Research

The task was now to translate my objects (the 12 leaves) into grid drawings. I worked mainly from the photographs of the objects. The main reason for this it that the leaves began to wilt very quickly after I brought them home, changing their shape.

I’ve placed the photos into the formation of the grid, to enable me to compare the objects to their pixelated counterparts.

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I worked on 2 concepts per each of the grid types. One grid being made up of round parts and the other being square parts. I used the concept 1 (below) to come up with a more filled-out version of the shape. The 2nd concept was then the simpler version, using less dots to construct the shape.

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The square grid was easier, since placing one black square next to another created a seamless line. I again applied the same rule to this grid type, with the 2nd concept being the most simplified. For concept 2 I aimed to use the least dots possible to construct the shape.

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