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How to Design With Grids and Break Them

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In this article, we'll talk about grids, what they are, their history, and how to master them. 

Grids are the foundation of all visual design. These invisible lines help organize elements on a page to create a clean, organized, and cohesive layout. Sticking to a grid will create safe designs, and it can eventually be boring to abide by the rules. But once you’ve mastered designing with grids, you can break the system. 

In this article, we'll take a look at the history of grids, how they evolved through history, and how to create them. We'll take a look at the types of grids, how to break them, and a few InDesign templates examples that demonstrate how an organization can be achieved without the design looking boring.

If you are looking for grid inspiration, be sure to check out Envato Elements. It's a great resource of inspiration and InDesign magazine templates.

The History of Grids

Renaissance paintings are famous for using perspective. Many paintings included a subtle grid that started in the center of the artwork and extended to the edges, which makes them look very symmetrical.

Masolino Da Panicale's painting, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha (1426-27) is heavily reliant on perspective. You’ll notice this mainly on the lines of the buildings in the foreground. We can create imaginary lines, and they all meet in the center of the painting. 

Masolino Da Panicale Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha 1426-27Masolino Da Panicale Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha 1426-27Masolino Da Panicale Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha 1426-27
Masolino Da Panicale, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha (1426-27)

Ancient manuscripts contained help lines or what we now call a baseline grid. These lines helped scribes create straight and evenly spaced lines of text in order to be readable as manuscripts were handwritten. The first western book printed with movable type, the Gutenberg Bible (1455), used a two-column grid on each page.

Another concept, which started in the 13th century, was the golden rectangle. The diagram was developed by an architect called Villard De Honnecourt. It consisted of a page divided into logical and harmonious parts. So if you resized the diagram to a page, it would provide you with a fixed margin that was considered visually harmonious to its size. 

The Early 20th Century

Earlier adopters of the grid and where it’s more evident are De Stijl and the Bauhaus movements. The discovery and use of the grid catapulted modernism and minimalism not only in graphic design but in many other forms of art. De Stijl proposed ultimate abstraction to express the utopian idea of harmony and order by using simple geometric forms and pure colors. De Stijl was also the name of a magazine that Theo Van Doesburg, founder of the movement, published. The layout was one of the most significant works of graphic design that influenced its development in history. 

Theo Van Doesburg publication design of De StijlTheo Van Doesburg publication design of De StijlTheo Van Doesburg publication design of De Stijl
Theo Van Doesburg, publication design of De Stijl

The Bauhaus movement used a philosophical approach in its discipline. It developed in three different cities in Germany and, while short-lived due to the Nazi political party, it had a big influence on the art and design field. The Bauhaus movement focused on functionality and taking down the elitist idea of art. Herbert Bayer’s poster includes the Bauhaus logo designed by Oskar Schlemmer. The logo is a clear representation of what the Bauhaus stood for. The poster is clearly grid-based down to the geometric sans serif type. 

Herbert Bayer poster design for the Bauhaus SchoolHerbert Bayer poster design for the Bauhaus SchoolHerbert Bayer poster design for the Bauhaus School
Herbert Bayer poster design for the Bauhaus School

The Swiss Take Over

Inspired by the modernist ideas from the early 20th Century, the Swiss style found beauty in simplicity. Grid systems came in full force during the 1940s and 1950s to help create a logical organization of information on a page. Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann are a couple of creators of the well-known International Typographic Style. Both used strict grids but allowed themselves to create playful layouts by rotating type, using colors and sometimes a few supporting elements. Josef Müller-Brockmann released a book called Grid Systems in which he provides guidelines and rules for different systems. While the text was written way before computers existed, it still remains one of the most important graphic design works that help us understand design.

Josef Muller Brockmann Grid systemsJosef Muller Brockmann Grid systemsJosef Muller Brockmann Grid systems
Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems book

Types of Grids

There are many different kinds of grids, and each has different functions in the way they hold and organize content. I believe it really depends on the number of elements and how detailed you'd like to be. 

Multi-Column Grid

Single-column grids work for simple documents like paperback novels or pocket-size books as the size doesn’t allow for more columns that would keep the text pleasantly legible.

Multi-column grids are mainly used for wider-page publications that include more elements than just text, like images and other hierarchical text. This type of grid will allow you to be flexible with how you arrange the content. For instance, images can occupy one column or span right across the page. The same goes for text, depending on what type of information you are working with: headlines, body copy, or captions. 

Multicolumn gridMulticolumn gridMulticolumn grid

Modular Grid

The difference between multicolumn grids and modular grids are the horizontal divisions spanning from left to right. The extra rows provide even more structure to a layout by allowing only a restricted amount of space not only vertically but also horizontally. 

Modular gridModular gridModular grid

Baseline Grid

If you are working with long forms of text, baseline grids can help you align all the text lines for a clean and organized look. Baseline grids are based on the type size and leading being used in the text. The line space will dictate the increment of the baseline grid, and you can adjust where the grid starts—at the margin or the very top of the page. A baseline grid is great to use in multi-column documents because it makes the text much easier for the reader to follow. 

Baseline gridBaseline gridBaseline grid

How to Construct a Grid

If you are interested in using grids in your design, make sure to use a grid even before setting up the document. If you have a sketching and planning phase, this is where a grid should first appear. Once you are ready to move to digital, you can set up grids easily in InDesign. When you create a new document, you can already create multiple columns to help you organize content from the get-go. 

Create a new documentCreate a new documentCreate a new document

If you wish to add modular grids, head over to Layout > Create Guides. In the option window you’ll be able to select the number of rows you’d like to add. For instance, below I added 5 rows over the 3 columns I created at the beginning of the document. 

Add a modular grid with the Create Guides optionAdd a modular grid with the Create Guides optionAdd a modular grid with the Create Guides option

To create a baseline grid, you’ll need to know what font, size, and line space or leading you’ll be using. In this case, I’ll be using Bw Nista Grotesk at 10 pt size and 12 pt leading. Head over to Preferences by pressing Command-K. Select the Grids option from the menu on the left side. Under Baseline Grid, set Increment Every to 12 pt. 

Create a baseline grid from the Preferences panelCreate a baseline grid from the Preferences panelCreate a baseline grid from the Preferences panel

In the document, press Option-Command-‘ to bring up the Baseline Grid. If the baseline grid doesn’t align with the horizontal grids, feel free to change the rows and gutter values. Select the text box, head over to the Paragraph panel and select the Align to Baseline Grid button. 

Align the text to the baseline gridAlign the text to the baseline gridAlign the text to the baseline grid

The Revolution and How to Break the Grid

By the 1970s, graphic designers reacted against the neat International Typographic Style. Post-modernism was flexible with the grid and resulted in complex designs. Designers didn’t completely reject the grid, but they pushed the boundaries. David Carson is one of the most famous designers of the Punk/New Wave era, and his designs are highly experimental.

Breaking the grid is easy, but breaking it in a way that makes sense and creates a visually pleasing result is the main point. Layering is a great way to break the grid. Always do start off with a grid and then break the rules where they need to be broken. Extremes are never good, so try to find a balance that creates harmony. 

Here are some awesome InDesign templates that use and break the grid: 

Minimalist Flyer Design

This flyer design template is created on a grid but breaks it by layering multiple elements. For instance, there are two photos, and some of the main text is overlaid, creating depth and a sense that there are grids overlapping in the design. 

Minimalist flyer designMinimalist flyer designMinimalist flyer design
Minimalist Flyer Design

Design Conference Poster/Flyer

This Swiss-inspired poster design also includes many overlapping elements. The background is composed of multiple images with a red overlay. The overlay is smart to subdue the intensity of the images and avoid different tones. The information over the background takes a higher hierarchical level due to the color choice and size. 

Design conference posterDesign conference posterDesign conference poster
Design Conference Poster

Dance Flyer

This awesome dance flyer template is neatly organized. The grid allows the text boxes to align and create a cohesive and harmonious unit. The large text and the image in the center are a great way to break the grid. They not only create movement but also break the rigidity of the grid. 

Dance FlyerDance FlyerDance Flyer
Dance Flyer

Global Warming Conference

Using large bleeding type breaks many of the rules created by the International Typographic Style. In this template, it adds edginess and interest to the design. Otherwise, it could look very plain. The large text also adds texture to the page so that the design doesn't fall flat. 

Global Warming ConferenceGlobal Warming ConferenceGlobal Warming Conference
Global Warming Conference

Inspiration Catalog

This template is another great example of using multiple grids to overlay a number of different elements. The design looks interesting, organized, and clean, without looking plain. Adding smaller elements like folios or picture captions over the image helps break the grid.

Inspiration CatalogInspiration CatalogInspiration Catalog
Inspiration Catalog

It's Your Turn!

In this article, we showed you the evolution and brief history of grids. For centuries, grids have influenced many art and design fields to create organization and build up cohesive works of art.

The grid is the most essential element in design that all designs are built upon. The understanding of its concept can make or break a designer's career. While it's been loved for decades and hated for others, there's no denying grids have always had a part in the design world. In order to break the grid, you need to master it and understand its function. Now it's your turn to show us how you are breaking the grid! 

If you are looking for more inspiration, be sure to check out Envato Elements for InDesign templates and InDesign magazine templates

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