Grid and Other Layout Systems in Book Design

From the beginning of printing, book design was dictated by the technology that produced it. The restrictions of the printing press confined type and imagery to vertical and horizontal divisions of space. This creates a grid that confined the design of print to typesetting technology. However, the grid and other layout systems are not always restrictive. To some, the grid allows us to create a proportional system that is able to produce harmonious layouts. To others, the grid is a declaration of modernity in the way it evolves from the natural origins of art and design. Throughout history these ideas have changed, and the impact of these ideas on book design also varies. Even printers in the 17th century were concerned with how to modernize book design. Printers in the 18th and 19th century were concerned with rational order in relation to the golden rectangle and use divine proportions to govern design. In the 20th century the grid becomes a piece of art on its own. Artist books both adhere to this system and attempt to subvert it entirely through their design.

This resource guide focuses on the use of grid and other ordering layout systems in book design. There are articles about Gutenburg and other Medieval printers who used the golden ration to design books. There are also primary source resources from printers in the 1700’s, summaries of collections, and artistic manifestos. The guide also uses secondary sources that analyze the success, use, and creation of grid and layout systems. The guide primarily takes sources from the 20th century as scholars in this era were particularly interested in creating grids as art and analyzing them as design objects. Swiss theorists like Jan Tschihold and modern day historical accounts of book design movements are included. Theorists often argue about whether the grid frees us or dooms us to regularity within its order. Use this guide to help yourself understand where your opinions fall.

Binghurtst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley & Marks, 2013: Written by famous Canadian typographer, Robert Bringhurst, this text was created in the hopes of being a bible to other typographers. Within the text Bringhurst makes philosophical arguments for a grid based order. He argues why proportions are useful in shaping and positioning text blocks.

Bois, Yve-Alain, and Amy Reiter-McIntosh. “Piet Mondrian, ‘New York City.’” Critical Inquiry, vol. 14, no. 2, 1988, pp. 244–277. : This text details the infamous work by Piert Mondrian entitled New York City. This article discusses how Mondrian’s use of the grid and primary color subverts order and uses the grid in ways that no modernist had done before him.

Brockmann, Josef Muller. Grid Systems in Graphic Design. Niggli, 1996: This influential text was originally written in the 60’s by a Swiss graphic designer. The text critically interprets the idea of the grid. The book outlines how to understand design conceptually using a grid and how to problem solve. Brockmann is known as a member of the Swiss international style movement and this influences his take on design.

Caraccioli, Louis-Antoine. Le Livre A La Mode. A Verte-Feuille, De L'imprimerie Du Printemps Au Perroquet, L'anneÌe Nouvelle, 1759: In this text from 1759 Antione Louis Carraccioli is examining what it means to be a printer in modernity. He experiments with the relationship between writing and printing and how these elements solely and jointly influence design.

De Graaf, Van. Nieuwe Berekening Voor De Vormgeving. 1946.: (No online version available) Van de Graaf’s influential text asserts to typographers and printers alike that there is a way to create a book with pleasing proportions. This canon for page design was used in a lot of medieval manuscripts and incunabula. The general idea of De Graaf’s cannon allows typesetters using any page size to position text in a specific area of the page while maintaining margin sizes.

Gessert, George. “An Introduction to Artists Books.” Northwest Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 1988, pp. 53–70. : This text gives a brief overview of the artist book, detailing how they came to be and discussing how artists used textual design in new ways. Specifically mentioned is Sol Lewitt who is known for his calculated formatting, he is actually one of the first artists to make an “artists book.”

Hurlburt, Allen. The Grid: a Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, 1978: This text was published as an aid to designers to help them in understanding and navigating the grid in print design. The book specifically deals with the difficulties of designing with a grid. The text uses detailed illustrations to elucidate concepts.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” October, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 50–64. : Krauss uses her article to understand the grid in terms of artistic production. The seminal work outlays the problems and challenges of the grid while trying to qualify its success. To Krauss the grid declares the grid as a signifier of modernity in art in terms of its spatial and temporal effects.

Maffei, Giorgio, and Sol LeWitt. Sol LeWitt, Artist's Books: Corraini, 2010.: This text examines Sol Lewitt’s artists books in length. The text features lots of illustrations and amasses many of the artist’s art books into one. The book seeks to understand Sol Lewitt’s systematic rationality and examine how he executes this through textual design using the grid and other successive geometries.

Man, John. Gutenburg: How One Man Made the World with Words. John Wiley and Sons, 2002: Historian John Man uses his text to examine Gutenberg and how the invention of moveable type changed the industry of printing forever. Within the text Man argues that Gutenburg used the golden ration to set his page layouts and uses primary source evidence to support his findings.

Max, Stanley M. “The ‘Golden Canon’ of Book-Page Construction: Proving the Proportions Geometrically.” Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 137–141: In this paper, the author argues that proportions governing page construction have never been mathematically proven. This text aims to prove the existence of the golden canon of gothic book construction using basic geometry to prove its existence.

Orcutt, William. In Quest of the Perfect Book: Reminiscences & Reflections of a Bookman. Little Brown, 1926.: This text is written by American type designer and printer William Orcutt outlines what he believes to be the best methods of printing. Orcutt attempts to understand the history of the book from his position as a printer in the 19th century. He discusses how the harmony of the perfect book can be achieved through his definition of harmony, perfection, and the book itself.

Rosavario, Raúl. Divina Proporción Tipográfica. Vol. 3, Ministerio De Educación De La Provincia De Buenos Aires, 1956.: In this text Raul Rosavario defines the golden ratio and then finds applications of it in renaissance texts. This text was critical in the modern understanding of textual layouts throughout history.

Tschichold, Jan, et al. The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design. Hartley & Marks, 1991.: Tschichold’s text reflects his sentiment towards the Bauhaus and discusses how subtle nuances of printing effect the design of the book. Things like indentations and ellipses points are analyzed in great detail to understand how textual design impacts the reading of a work.

Zenner, Marie-Thérèse. “Villard De Honnecourt and Euclidean Geometry.” NEXUS NETWORK JOURNAL, vol. 4, no. 2, 2002, pp. 65–78.: This text looks critically at Villard de Honnecourt, a French Architect who’s understanding of scale and proportion influenced his work. While mainly about architecture the paper examines how Honnecourt had a propensity for perfect Euclidian angles and apply this to his own textual work which greatly reflects his interest in mathematical harmony and order.