John McWade presents a biweekly series that touches on all areas of design, helping designers new and old sharpen their skills and create more powerful work.
- There are two kinds of design grids. There's a rigid mechanical grid and then there's what I call the rule of thumb grid. The mechanical grid is one that's pre-made. It's like for a recurring document, like a newspaper or a magazine where you have fixed columns and rows into which you pour your text and place your graphics and arrange them in different ways. The rule of thumb grid is far more dynamic and it is built based on the image that's on your page.
It grows naturally out of that image. And that's the one I'd like to show you today. So, on my iPad I have a photograph of the International Space Station floating serenely in space above the Earth to which we're going to place a headline and some text. And it's like, where does it go? The way to start is to take the measurements of the images that are in front of you, and it's just like using your thumb to visualize where your pictures on your wall should go. So, for example, we can, we say, okay, here's our thumb, and there's a space between these panels that's about that size.
That's a space we can duplicate over here. Like that. So, we can see that there's a horizontal line created by the grid. We have our thumb space. And now we can start our copy like this. We want to put another column here and have this column of copy like so. And the question is, how wide to make this column? Well, this column is the same width as the space station panel, so there's a direct correlation between this width and this width.
So, we put that same space here and then we put our third column out here. The width of these columns is the width of the entire space station itself. This is a physical width that our eyes can see and so we just transfer it to each of these columns like this. I can show you this in a more formal way like this. The green rectangles correspond to the width of the space station panels and are transferred to each of these columns and also to the column on the far left.
The blue is the space between the panels which is a space our eyes see and I've duplicated that here. And the yellow is the width of the station itself which I've duplicated here for the width of each of these columns. And the result looks like this. Your eyes can see, can relate this space to this space. They're the same space.
You can probably see that this space is the same as this space. Think of the thumb. You can probably see that this space is the same as this space. And of course, everything is lined up horizontally like this. There are countless ways to do this, this is not mathematics and it's not science. It's art. But what this is doing is giving us rational dimensions to do our layouts.
For example, in this example I've added the fourth column by keeping the original dimensions the same but narrowing this space. This column is now the same as this, which gave us enough room for a fourth column out here on the far right. And that result looks like this. So, technically, it's good, but aesthetically and emotionally it doesn't feel good because one of the beauties of the space station is that it just floats out in open free space.
And what I'm feeling is this is very crowded here with this copy infringing onto the station. And so, I want to move the copy away from it. So, to do that, I still use the grid, which I've done like this. What you can see here is this space has been repeated over here. Your eye sees this. It's not a magical distance. That's the same space. And the width of the station is still the width of these columns like we saw before.
And the distance between those columns is the same one-panel width as before. So, we have a panel width here and a panel width here. That's our result. To my eye, our headline is still crowding the space station. It's too close to it. There are two possible solutions to that. One is to move it, physically move it away. The other will be to color it so it recedes somewhat. This is now, I just picked up a color from the Earth to color the type here.
We could also pick up a color from this panel to color the type or we could use some other palette that we have. The point being so it recedes a little bit. If it's still too close, there's yet another possibility. And that's to place it like this. What you can see here is, as before, this space has been repeated here, but it's left empty. And all these other spaces remain as they were before. What's different here is that this horizontal space has been repeated up here.
And it's almost been repeated here. So we have a recurring grid space that's based on the image we can actually see. One thing to note is that we tend to, our eyes tend to see horizontal spaces compared to other horizontal spaces. And vertical spaces compared to other vertical spaces. We don't tend to relate a horizontal space to some kind of vertical space. We just don't see that. One of the, in this case, I can see, one of the dangers of working with a grid that is this mechanical, is that we wind up creating a lot of rectangles.
We have rectangles, a rectangular type. When we place those, that creates rectangles between the type, rectangles here, rectangles here, rectangles here, here, and so on. Rectangles are kind of foreign to the image of this free-floating space station. There's a couple possible solutions for that. We're not going to go into those. One of which would be to, well, I guess I'll go into one, one of which would be to set this type instead of justified like this, would be to set it with a ragged edge.
Would help start to break up those rectangles, but that's a topic for another day. A final solution might be this one if we need the type just simply away from the space station. So, it just remains floating out there. We can still use the visual grid, or the dynamic grid. This space, which our eye easily sees, has been duplicated here and here. This panel width, as before, has been used for our right-hand margin as well as the distance between the copy and the headline.
And this space station headline has been set aligned to the center line of the ISS. That's a rule of thumb grid. Every image, every image, no matter how simple it is, has dimensions in it that you can see with your eyes. You can hold your thumb up and measure, and you want to build a grid, a dynamic grid, that's based on those measurements. At least, this is always a place to start and it will generally keep your design very organized and just organized and looking good.
Again, it's not math, it's not science, it's art, so feel free to flex, relate horizontal to horizontal, vertical to vertical, and that's your design for today. See you next time.
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