Three Grids with Shapes Inside

Writing systems vary, but a good page is not hard to recognize, whether it comes from Tang Dynasty China, the Egyptian New Kingdom or Renaissance Italy.  The principles that unite these different schools of design are based on the structure and scale of the human body—the eye, the hand, and the forearm in particular—and on the invisible but no less real, no less demanding and no less sensuous anatomy of the human mind. ~ Robert Bringhurst (1)

One afternoon at a conference for medical writers and editors, I was running a three-hour workshop on page layout and typography.  We were 21 people participating. Our task was to look at what makes a “good page,” as in the Bringhurst quote at the head of this post: something not hard to recognize as good. (1)

Before showing examples of page layouts based on grid systems, I gave each person six or seven shapes of colored paper and one sheet of paper with a grid of nine squares. The only direction was to place these colored shapes in some arrangement on the grid in a way that worked for the arranger. We were going to think about how a “page” looks, irrespective of any word content and to see if it was obviousthose principles of design that according to Bringhurst cut across cultures and generations.

Although more than a few participants had said they had no visual talent, and only one admitted to some formal graphic design training, when we put all the grids up on the wall, almost every grid layout was appealing and interesting in some way.

There were a lot of “good pages” there. How did this happen? Intuition? Gut instinct about where to place a shape? Tradition? Did we all agree on what made a page “good” or not? Were there some grids that some believed should not make it into the “good page” category at all? And if so, what was it about them that got them relegated to the ‘not-a-good-page’ pile?

Three Grids: All with Circle in the Center

Defining a “good page” for us became less like a biochemist’s pursuit of a new vaccine and more like a knight’s quest, where the knight gets sidetracked and forgets the quest with the discovery of new wonderful things, equally as desirable as the original sought-for object. It was clear also that different people had different preferences for good/better/best page layouts.

Does this mean a “good page” is subjective? And that my “good page” may not be your “good page”? Or are there rules one could follow that would help us to recognize, appreciate, and create good (or better) pages? Words like focal point, alignment, balance, and dynamic tension come to mind.

We are still in the realm of no words yet on the page. First, let’s define “page.” A “page” used to mean one side of a sheet of paper in a collection of sheets, sometimes bound together in a book, magazine, or newspaper. However, today a “page” could be a screen rectangle, as in the “home page” or other “pages” of a website. In this blog, a  “page” is any surface upon which one could write, draw, or project an image—a cave wall, a window pane, a quilt, a television screen.

Archeological pre-historic human cliff drawing
Archeological pre-historic human cliff drawing. Nakhonratchasima, Thailand (2)

On these various “pages” we eyeball a lot of images (and words) todayads in our magazines, animated billboards, store displays, fashionista outfits walking by. And what we see around us does influence us, whether to copy or reject or build upon. In creating a good page from scratch (book cover, resume first page, annual report page, graffiti wall, etc.), we can use intuition. We can use what we have seen and liked. We can also use math.

A grid is a simple mathematical tool for organizing space, words, images, and other elements placed on a page. A page divided into columns and rows (one type of grid) is a way to organize information so that one can determine how to place elements that carry the message we want.

The page-grid ideas used today by many designers originate in older systems of aesthetics based on math and physics and can get beautifully complicated. See the Fibonacci Sequence (also known as the Golden Mean, Golden Ratio, Fibonacci Spiral, and the Greek Letter Phi) for some history.

Fibonacci Spiral
Fibonacci Spiral

Typography is not only verbal information but also lines of texture within a composition. These textures create rectangles of tone on the page and the relationship of the positions of these rectangles is critical to the perception of order and unity within a composition. The duality of the two roles gives the designer responsibility for both communication and composition. ~ Kimberly Elam (3)

The grid exercise described in the first paragraphs of this post is a looser version of the basic exercise (with various levels of restrictions) that Kimberly Elam develops in her book (course) on the grid and graphic design, Grid Systems, from which the quote above is taken. (3) The red rectangles represent blocks of text and the circle is a wild card.

Spend time deep-reading through one of her exercise assignments and solutions; you may never look at text-in-a-square quite the same way again. Even a quick look through her examples of how designers have used the grid in unpredictable ways can prove enlightening no matter your level of grid-design skill.

Exercise Elements for Grid
Basic elements of the grid exercise as developed by Kimberly Elam

This is not to say that in order to lay out a good page, one must follow a grid structure. Many cultures and present-day designers do not use grids in shaping their pages, and those pages would still make it into the halls of the good-page archives. But grids are a useful tool to understand and use.

As for my own level of grid-design skill, I am still in the early (5) years of using the grid, especially now for white papers, grant proposals, and eBooks. Currently I am collecting interesting or odd text-in-a-square pages, whether a grid structure is obvious or not, that I see in my home city streets and elsewhere. These are so far mostly signage and posters. If you have any photos of text-in-a-square layouts in the world around you that you want to share, send and I will post them in this blog.


  1. Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style (3.2). Vancouver: Hartley & Marks. 2008: 10.
  2. Archeological pre-historic human cliff drawing over 4000 years ago, Nakhonratchasima, Thailand. iStockPhoto. 2010.
  3. Elam, Kimberly. Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type. NY: Princeton Architectural Press. 2004: 5.

The Grid in Graphic Design: Some Resources

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