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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

If you’re a designer, with a blank page-spread on the computer in front of you, how do you start your design? Perhaps you have photographs, some captions, a pull quote, and several paragraphs of text you want to organize and present to the reader as an advertisement. How do you put all of these elements together in such a way that your reader will “get” your most important point, then move on to your subsequent points?

The same question arises if you are designing a multi-page document, perhaps a print book or a furniture catalog (IKEA, for instance, has to do this very thing, and make it understandable, interesting, and consistent with their brand image).

After all, if you do not give your reader a “road map,” a set of directions regarding how to proceed through the material on the printed page, he or she will get frustrated. And a frustrated reader stops reading.

The Building Blocks of Design and Their Purpose

A few elements of design (for commercial printing or the Internet) that come to mind for me are the following: color, typefaces, treatment of photos, and—in some ways more importantly—the design grid.

Why is the design grid so important, and what exactly is it?

Think of a design grid like a structure of girders on which you build a building, or a wire armature around which you apply clay when making a sculpture, or even just the scaffolding built to paint or repair the interior or exterior of a building.

In all of these cases, the structure gives form and sturdiness to the building or sculpture. It is also like a skeleton, which gives sturdiness and form to a human or (other) animal body, while at the same time providing flexibility. Having a spine also allows you to bend and twist.

Using a design grid shows you where and how to position headlines, photos, color blocks, sidebars, or pull-quotes, on a page spread of the print book or on a single-page advertisement. Moreover, it does this by setting up expectations in a reader. The reader knows, for instance, that there will be one, two, or three columns of type on a print book page (twice as many on a double-page spread). Images will fit in these spaces or bleed off the edge of the paper. Headlines may be placed at the top of the page, and running headers along with filios (page numbers) may be at the top of each page with an underline, a half-point rule that bleeds into the gutter.

Consistency makes design elements on individual print book pages (as well as successive groups of print book pages) feel unified. Unity is a prime principle of both fine art and graphic art because it focuses the reader or viewer on the levels of importance among visual elements and on how they are interrelated.

Creating the Design Grid

When I started in graphic design more than 40 years ago, the initial step in creating a design grid, which I am about to teach you, had to be done on paper. We did not have computers, so I would first draw the outline of a page (let’s say 8.5” x 11”). Then I would add margins (let’s say 1” all the way around—top, bottom and sides). Then I might break the central column that remains (everything but the empty margin space) into two or three columns with gutters between them.

When I laid out two pages side by side (a page spread), I would have double the number of columns.

This is exactly what I would do when laying out a small community newspaper I produced in the early 1980s. Now you can do the same thing on your computer in your design program (such as InDesign) using colored guide lines that you can pull down out of the rulers on the page you’re designing. You can also set the number of columns and the space between columns on the computer.

But one thing I would strongly encourage you to do is to design two pages at a time (a spread). Why? Because the reader of a multi-page print book (this doesn’t apply to a single-page ad) always sees two pages side by side. So it behooves you to design multi-page commercial printing projects this way.

The Newspaper Grid I Used

When I laid out each issue of the community newspaper back in the early 1980s, I already had some fixed parameters. (In fact, I also had a stack of blank grid sheets ruled out with margins, columns, and gutters between columns). The type sizes and typefaces had already been determined for the body copy, headlines, subheads, etc. And the paper choice and color choices had also been determined. So I had fewer variables to concern myself with: mostly related to the use of (rather than the creation of) the design grid.

If I recall correctly, I had five narrow columns on the left-hand page and five on the right-hand page. Since the readers’ eyes went first to the outside edges of each two-page spread when she/he turned the page, I had to position the advertisements toward the outside. They were one, two, or five columns wide, and I built them upward (large to small) from the bottom to the outside edges, leaving a “well” in the center of the two-page spread into which I could place the headlines, pull-quotes, and single columns of editorial copy. Because all pages matched this general rule, the reader always knew where to look for both ads and editorial material. There was no confusion, and this regularity and lack of confusion put the reader at ease. (Here’s a summary of these rules of thumb: minimize variables, maintain consistency, set up reader expectations and keep to them—all to make reading easier.)

On the front of the newspaper I could be more creative. I could add a large photo. Perhaps I might bleed the photo off the page (or even tilt it). I could turn a short headline (only a few words) on its side and use it to take up one whole column (out of the five on the cover page). I could extend a headline over one, two, three, or more columns, depending on where the columns of editorial type associated with the headline were positioned.

With all of this I had a lot of options and could offer a lot of visual variety. However, at the same time everything looked like it had been designed by one person. Things were not jumbled around on the page. Each design element aligned with something else. So what the design grid really did for me was to simplify all of my design options while providing the reader with consistency and ease of reading.

Since my time at the newspaper I have had about 40 years of experience designing everything from large-format graphics to print books, from brochures to advertisements. All of these have been based on some form of this initial grid concept. It has made my life considerably easier because I haven’t needed to make up new design rules for each page spread.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

What I would suggest for you, if you’re a designer, is to use Google Search to find examples of design grids (one-, two-, three-, and five-column grids). Look for both the ruled-out design grids without headlines and photos and the very same grids with the design elements included.

Notice how all of the primary visual elements (photos, headlines, etc.) seem to nestle into a corner of one of the columns or extend across multiple columns or all of the columns. They don’t just float in the columns; they are anchored in some way. And each element is aligned in some way with other elements on the page (the fewer “axis lines” or “lines of alignment,” the stronger the structure).

There is no better way to learn this than by finding visual examples (printed and on the Internet) of multiple-column design grids and their uses in commercial printing. Learn from the masters of graphic design. Also, if you get a promotional piece in the mail and you like it, deconstruct the grid. Draw it out right on the brochure, noting the columns of type, the margins, the gutter between columns. Be able to articulate exactly how the designer has made her/his choices in positioning all elements of the design. This is exactly how I learned. Eventually it became second nature.

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