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Anatomy of Design by Mirko Ilic, Steven Heller

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34
ANATOMY OF DESIGN
The constructive grid is an indispensable foundation for two-dimensional design.
As an armature, it allows the designer to order type and image with
mathematical precision and implement clear and effective visual hierarchies.
Although grids existed in painting before the Renaissance and in commercial art
were used in an ad hoc manner from around the turn of the twentieth century,
the technique wasn't formally recognized until the 1920s, when constructivism,
de Stijl, and the Bauhaus introduced it as a holy grail of rational practice.
Another two decades passed before the Swiss school of the early 1950s
codified it in the design journal
Neue Grafik (“New Graphic Design”) and it became
the quintessential tool-and symbol-of modern design. Afterward, the design
world went grid crazy; everything was based on and anchored to it. Although
grids varied according to the specificity of the overall format or design scheme,
every designer talked about “adhering the grid” as if it were a monolithic tablet
of commandments bequeathed to mortals from on high.
Grids are not, however, a golden section—or, for that matter, a
panacea—ensuring balance and harmony. In fact, some grids guarantee boring
results. About grids, Paul Rand once casually said, “I want to know I can start
the margin always in the same place, and then I use my different vertical and
horizontal nodal points for different things. And that's a help! You wouldn't know
it after it's done, but that's the way I did it.” Some grids are, therefore,
predictable; others allow for numerous variations. The grid is but a skeleton.
What is put on or goes into it is the only determinant of quality; otherwise, it
is just a bunch of squares and rectangles.
This poster for the 1997 English dark comedy
Twin Town, about two
partners in crime who pass for but are not real twins, is a grid in the most
literal sense—a page of twenty-four connected colored squares, some of which
feature characters in the film. Because film posters usually must communicate
too much information in a relatively small amount of space, the grid motif—like
the frames of a film—enables the designer to pictorially tie together diverse
narrative fragments while presenting a decorative scheme. This poster draws
some of its inspiration from early modernist typographic grids. While the gothic
type in the carnivalesque-colored boxes serves no overt functional purpose, the
grid exudes a modern aura, doubtless a result of the strict geometric structure.
The 1920s-era “Neisch Plakat Farben” advertisement for a poster printer is one
of the earliest examples of the grid motif. Over eighty years after it was first
printed, “Neisch Plakat Farben” has a contemporary look.
Bauhaus designers revered the grid because it was essentially modern.
They believed it was like a pen that contained necessary information in
accessible units, similar and perhaps influenced by the periodic table of
elements. A scientific chart first published in 1869, the periodic table is a
perfect example of gridlocked minimalism. The chart influenced different kinds of
grids used to organize information, like ledgers, invoices, and other routine
materials. But not all grids are utilitarian.
Twin Town's grid is a checkerboard on which pieces are placed, and for
the most part its purpose is decorative, just like the many other recent film
posters that appear to have taken its lead. In fact, whenever a movie has a
slew of characters, each contractually requiring equal billing, the old grid is
dragged out of the toolshed as a fail-safe motif. Regardless of their motivating
purpose, equal-sized squares that form a repeating pattern are soothing to the
eye. And these posters, like Advent calendars, make it easy for the audience to
receive the visual and textual information—no fuss, little muss. Even if a grid is
not used for high design, it is an indispensable tool in a designer's repertoire.
Twin Town
Designer: Empire Design
1997 Twin Town, movie poster
s: Empire Design c: Polygram Filmed Entertainment, UK
This poster for the 1997 English dark comedy Twin Town, about two partners in crime
who pass for but are not real twins, is a grid in the most literal sense—a page of
twenty-four connected colored squares, some of which feature characters in the film.
Calendars and periodic tables
Type in a grid
Images in a grid

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