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Grid Systems
Grid Systems is another title from Princeton Architectural Press’ Design Briefs series that continues to deliver the fundamentals in compact books, easy for any reader to enjoy.

Grid Systems uses modules, transparent overlays, and a wide range of examples to evidence typographic structure through the grid. It shares some traits of another title written by Kimberly Elam, Geometry of Design. While Geometry of Design had mathematics and the golden section as its driving force, Grid Systems utilizes form, function, and hierarchy to demonstrate grid usage. The grid—and especially the golden section—contains a degree of mystery for students who are eager to learn design fundamentals. Elam combats this in Grid Systems by examining and using the grid within the context of other design basics: proportion, grouping, positive/negative space, edges, and thirds. Well-crafted thumbnails illustrate how to put these principles into practice. In the opening chapters, you investigate composition with the above elements and a basic three by three grid set in a square. Composing in a square challenges any designer because of the bullseye convenience. You don’t want to create a target for the eye, you want the eye to move generously across the entire field.

These exercises are interwoven with design samples from Bayer, Kunz, and Nike. A short and detailed background accompanies each and some have ruled overlays to analyze the composition. They encourage readers to look closely at how these designs were assembled—in effect reverse engineering the designs. But observing “the masters” here doesn’t give students the right to mimic their creations. Instead, Elam identifies that design fundamentals and especially the grid are as relevant now as they were during the Bauhaus.

The grid can appear complex, cumbersome, and rigid at times for young designers and students. Grid Systems challenges these notions with Elam’s down to earth approach. If this title proves as useful as other Design Briefs books, we may see it reprinted in the near future with more examples from students. And judging by the book’s introduction, that’s Kimberly’s hope too.

Book Information
Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type by Kimberly Elam
112 pages, Paperback
0.50 x 8.5 x 7.0 inches
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
ISBN: 1568984650
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Jan.11.2005 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

But observing “the masters” here doesn’t give students the right to mimic their creations.

Real understanding tends to promote original contribution. It is superficial familiarity that encourages copies.

On Jan.11.2005 at 11:19 AM
Jason T.’s comment is:

True, and by delving into the structures of these compositions and showing how they came about, Elam goes beyond the superficial.

On Jan.11.2005 at 11:56 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Absolutely. If people look at good work and ask “How does this work?” and “What are the ideas that make it tick?” then they will end up doing good work. If they ask “What does this look like?” then they will do pale imitations. Grids are an organizing principle rather than stylistic covering. Grids can be used to develop style but the same grid-based ideas can be used to develop drastically different-looking work.

On Jan.11.2005 at 12:35 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Just like the foundation of a house.

On Jan.11.2005 at 02:35 PM
Bennett Holzworth’s comment is:

David Kadavy, a fellow Be A Design Group author, has recently written a review of this book on our site. Just thought you might want to check it out.

On Jan.12.2005 at 01:33 PM
Michael Holdren’s comment is:

Jason, I'm curious how this book stacks up against some other books about the infamous grid system:

Grid Systems in Graphic Design

The Typographic Grid

I haven't read any of these books yet, and plan on purchasing all three eventually, but I'm wondering which would be the best one to get first. Which one is the most educational, useful, and handy to have.

On Jan.16.2005 at 09:45 AM
Jason T’s comment is:

All three of the books, Michael, cover the same territory, but in different ways. Brockmann's carries more history to it, and looks at the grid in the context outside of just graphic design. Bosshard's book delves deep into the grid, and goes so far as examining macro- and micro- grids. I would recommend all three of these books (including that reviewed here by Elam). If there were any sequence in reading them, I'd suggest this order: 1-Elam; 2-Brockmann; and 3-Bosshard. This order will build a good foundation with Elam and Brockmann before you read Bosshard's title which is methodical, intricate, and almost calculated in its approach. After you page through them all, get back to this post, and give us your take. ;-)

On Jan.16.2005 at 02:33 PM
Michael Holdren’s comment is:

Thanks Jason. That's the information I was looking for. I'll do like you said and come back and post once I've gone through all three books.

On Jan.16.2005 at 03:18 PM
Rafael’s comment is:

Hi there, I’m really interested on grids, their evolution and methods, for my graduation paper I collected as much information on the subject as possible and would like to share some of my ideas.

First of all, I’d recommend reading "Notes on Book Design" by Derek Birdsall, "Making and Breaking the Grid" by Timothy Samara, "Designing Books" by Jost Hochuli and "The Designer and The Grid" by Lucienne Roberts and Julia Thrift. These, together with M�ller-Brockmann’s and Elam’s books were my sources of research.

After reading all of them, Elam’s was clearly the least technical of them, and that isn’t necessarily bad. It’s a good introductory book, good for those that never imagined such a structure could exist within a page.

Samara’s and Roberts’ books have a very interesting history of the system, the latter has also a very good section on building the system, where three different designers share their methods of construction (ideas on units, precision, breaking of rules, etc.)

Hochuli’s and Birdsall’s titles present grids applied to books, and here, in my opinion, grid systems show all their potential for integrating pictures and text.

M�ller-Brockmann’s book is really the most complete of these and the author clearly applies an almost religious approach to the whole idea of grids. One should have in mind though the differences of technology available in 1981 when the book was written and technologies available nowadays (InDesign for example), the levels of precision using the computer can now be even higher than those applied by M�ller-Brockmann. Also, some of his ideas really have no practical use nowadays, like when he says that the designer should have a good knowledge of different typefaces so he’s capable of drawing accurate thumbnails of pages.

Unfortunately I never had a chance of reading Bosshard’s "The Typographic Grid" or Emil Ruder’s "Typography", I think they would add a lot to the study of the system. My approach to building grid systems today is a mix of all the ideas in these books and also some the ideas in Robert Bringhurst’s "Elements of Typographic Style" and Jan Tschichold’s "The Form of the Book" (specially Villard’s diagram for determining margins). Margins are a weak point on M�ller-Brockmann’s title, he never really explains his method for determining them, so I applied Villard’s diagram to his cover of "Grid Systems" and guess what? Perfect match. :D

Sorry about the long post, but I’m really interested in the whole grid thing and it was only superficially explained on university, a shame. :)

On Nov.20.2005 at 08:07 PM
Rafael’s comment is:

One last thought, Elam’s approach to grid systems is more useful for applications like business cards or envelopes, etc. where a more "free" approach to the construction of the grid is more efficient.

On Nov.20.2005 at 08:11 PM
timothy samara’s comment is:

I agree with Mr. Swanson; to simply ape the look of existing work is to create derivative and inauthentic imitations. Ripping off the so-called 'masters' is equally perverse. Drawing inspiration from recognized innovators, however, has a long and respected tradition in the arts... but it involves understanding the principles embodied in the work that inspires and applying them to new content in a new context, not simply imitating the inspirational source. The source developed as a response to specific criteria; the principles it might embody are timeless and unrelated to the specific. In the context of some new piece, these same principles may resolve a problem in a completely different way, resulting in a different appearance or surface.

On Dec.18.2005 at 10:09 PM