The Typographic Grid: Essential Framework or Elegant Prison?

The layout grid, in its modern conception, has its origins with a group of Swiss graphic designers and educators working in the early postwar era. Ironically, while the grid was intended to create a modern system of layout flexible enough to accommodate type and image together, and to organize more complex textual hierarchies, it is firmly grounded in the structure and limitations of metal type composition. It could be argued that the enduring success of the ‘International Typographic Style’, as the methods of the Zürich and Basel Schools came to be known, has as much to do with the conventionalized visual vocabulary the typographic grid has imposed on Twentieth-Century publication design as with any inherent superiority of the approach.

In common with another mainstay of the International Typographic Style, the typeface Helvetica, the popularity of the grid approach has followed something of a typical pendulum motion, wherein a once-revolutionary idea becomes mainstream, spawns a backlash, only to be rediscovered by a new generation and readopted with uncritical reverence. For anyone who has been working as a graphic designer for more than a decade, the grid carries unfortunate associations with corporate culture – the graphic equivalent to the ubiquitous office cubicle. And as such, the sight of a psychedelic rave poster that appears to have been designed by Max Bill is simultaneously amusing and vaguely disturbing.

Grid Systems in Graphic Design / Raster Systeme für die Visuele Gestaltung, 4th Edition
? 1961 (1996): Josef Müller-Brockmann

Originally published in 1961, this seminal work on the subject, by the renowned Swiss graphic designer and professor at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zürich, covers the process of grid development and the application of grids in modern publication design. A Bibliographic 100 title. (1996: Verlag Niggli; ISBN 9783721201451)


The Typographic Grid
? 2000: Hans Rudolf Bosshard

Published in 2000, also by Swiss publisher Verlag Niggli, Brosshard’s sophisticated treatment can be considered a follow-up to Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems and is, in many ways, the (obsessive compulsive) last word on the subject. Bosshard, also a professor at the Kunstgewerbeschule and a contemporary of Müller-Brockmann, looks at increasingly complex grids, discusses the limits of the system, and analyses a variety of salient examples from the International Style cannon. (2000: Verlag Niggli; ISBN 3721203402)



Typographie: A Manual of Design, 7th Edition
? 1967 (2001): Emil Ruder

Originally published in 1967 and now in its sixth edition, this classic textbook of the new typography is based on the curriculum that Ruder developed as head of the departments of typography and graphic design at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule in Basel (posts subsequently held by Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart). This edition features an introduction by Ruder’s like-minded friend Adrian Frutiger. (2001: Verlag Niggli; ISBN 978372120043)


For a thorough look at the origins and influence of Swiss graphic design in the Ruder, Hofmann, Müller-Brockmann era, see: Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style, 1920-1965 by Richard Hollis, available, not surprisingly, at Swipe, for $62.95. (2006: Yale Art; ISBN 0300106769)

The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newpapers, Magazines, and Books
? 1978: Allen Hurlburt

Published more than 30 years ago, this is the first and most orthodox English-language introduction to the grid as a publication design tool, and has served as the standard (hopelessly overpriced) textbook for several generations of graphic designers. (1978: John Wiley; ISBN 9780471289234)



Designer and the Grid
? 2005: Julia Thrift & Lucienne Roberts

One of the first post-Macintosh reassessments of the grid, The Designer and the Grid examines the work of several leading (at the time) contemporary graphic designers, including Simon Esterson, Vaughan Oliver and Ellen Upton, to explore its renewed relevance in the digital era. (2005: RotoVision; ISBN 2880468140)


Making and Breaking the Grid: A Graphic Design Layout Workshop
? 2005: Timothy Samara

This very popular title uses case studies to explore the potential and limits of grid-based design. Projects are arranged according to function and structure, and the featured designers provide commentary on their rationale and design processes. (2005: Rockport; ISBN 1592531253)



Layout Essentials: 100 Design Principles for Using Grids
? 2009: Beth Tondreau

A relatively simplified introduction to grid layout, this practical guide identifies 100 typographic and layout variables, from typeface selection to optimum leading and optimum measure, that contribute to the success of most grid-based projects. (2009: Rockport Publishers; ISBN 9781592534722)


Basics Design 07: Grids
? 2008: Gavin Ambrose & Paul Harris

An accessible, highly visual introduction, this seventh volume in the admirable Design Basics series focuses on ordering the page or screen through the effective use of the grid. (2008: AVA Publishing; ISBN 9782940373772)



Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition
? 2001: Kimberly Elam

Using a clever and attractive system of vellum overlays, Geometry of Design illustrates a range of classic and modern proportioning systems and demonstrates their application in modern graphic design, industrial design and architecture. (2001: Princeton Architectural Press; ISBN 1568982496)

Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type
? 2004: Kimberly Elam

With Grid Systems, Elam again uses transparent overlays to make visible the hidden structures of a series of modern graphic layouts. This intuitive form of presentation makes the grid system immediately comprehensible, making this an excellent companion to a more detailed textbook treatment. (2004: Princeton Architectural Press; ISBN 1568984650)

Typographic Systems, Rules for Organizing Type
? 2007: Kimberly Elam

Typographic Systems goes beyond the Basel School grid to explore a variety of alternative, rule-based, typographic layout systems (i.e., random, radial, modular or bilateral). In common with Elam’s previous books, this study is disappointingly brief; however, it is currently the only presentation of these ideas that we have to offer and, as such, is essential student reading. (2007: Princeton Architectural Press; ISBN 1568986874)


Grid Index, Includes CD-Rom
? 2009: Carsten Nicolai

Not strictly a ‘grid systems’ book, Grid Index attempts to codify the range of possible two-dimensional patterns, from the humble square grid to the most complex irregular and unpredictable lattice. Similar to the out-of-print and highly sought-after Neubau Modul, the book features an accompanying CD-Rom containing all of the catalogued patterns as editable vector graphic files free for use in your own layouts. (2009: Die Gestalten Verlag; ISBN 9783899552416)


The Grid Book
? 2009: Hannah B. Higgins

For those looking to find deeper meaning in the utilitarian grid, Higgins examines the cultural significance of 10 historical antecedents to this Modernist mainstay. This is a highbrow celebration of the best of the square and the repeating: the brick, the tablet, the gridiron city plan, the map, musical notation, the ledger, the screen, moveable type, the manufactured box and the net. (2009: MIT Press; ISBN 9780262512404)



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