I mentioned the “Swiss School” and “the grid” layout in another article and while most comments were positive about the article, there were a number of people who asked if the grid was even still alive. I assure you the grid layout is alive, well, and used all the time. Those who never learned it just don’t realize the rules of the grid and how one can use or even bend, or break those rules for success in designing incredible layouts.

Firstly, using a grid layout isn’t something assigned to print or digital exclusively. Layout is layout and design is a method to convey a message using multiple elements. Naturally, those elements work in harmony when consideration for how the human eye sees the layout and how the brain processes it. Make the brain work too hard at deciphering the message and it shuts off synapses to the layout completely.

Why the grid is misunderstood

There’s a very good, basic lesson on how to use the grid system on Using Layout Grids Effectively is a sound lesson for those who have never heard of the grid in art school, or other life lessons. It covers the use of columns as well as other elements, the rule of thirds, and the golden ratio. It just doesn’t go past common sense into why some designers are great and others just mediocre.

Imagine every designer learned layout from this Designers Insights article. We would all be churning out the same designs. It’s the ones who see the grid, almost like idiot savants, and use it as no others can — or rather, as others would do if they could see it — that produce the best design work.

The easiest way to explain how the grid is almost boundless when it comes to layout possibilities, is to think of it with this odd sounding example: Chances are, you’ve seen one of those “how many squares do you see” tests that pop up on Facebook. So, how many are there? Did you count the four or eight that are formed by the singular squares? There are squares within squares, making more squares, and so on. That is grid layout!

The how and why

As designers, we may be familiar with the Swiss school of design from basic design 101 class. Some call it the evolution of modern design. Others may think of it as just a step to where design style is now. Both may be correct.

In a spotlight on Josef Müller-Brockmann I wrote for another blog, it detailed how he and his contemporaries evolved the design rules we still adhere to today:

Josef Müller-Brockmann (May 9th, 1914 – August 30th, 1996) is considered one of the key players in the Swiss School of international Style. When one considers the time of his career, which included the Second World War, the Cold War and the growing influence of a Europe on the mend from destruction and fear, he certainly informed a design style that influenced designers on a global scale.

Müller-Brockmann was more than just a man who sought to form what is now labeled the Swiss School; Constructivism, De Still, Suprematism and the Bauhaus, all of which pushed his designs in a new direction that opened doors for creative expressions in graphic design. Among his peers he is probably the most easily recognized when looking at that period.

His design sense of the 1950s aimed to create posters that communicated with the masses. This was no small feat as the pieces had to communicate across a language barrier, with English, French, German and Italian speaking populations in Switzerland alone. It was the harmony and simplicity of these pieces that influenced a post-war world that had lost the sense of central nationalism and gained a lesson in the need for globalization. Müller-Brockmann was soon established as the leading practitioner and theorist of the Swiss Style, which sought a universal graphic expression through a grid-based design, purged of extraneous illustration and subjective feeling.

Fella is definitely a rule breaker but he maintains a discipline with his designs, keeping the message at the forefront, using the grid to its fullest extent—maybe taking it even further!

The grid layout is not some obsolete design principle and whether it’s for print or the web, it is a design strength that broke ground decades ago but still rings true with basics of great design. It is the foundation on which all design is built.

I was never one to follow the rules but teachers and great artists have some memorable quotes on the subject. “Before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules” and “to create your own world you must first understand the real world.”

If you study the rule breakers, you can see they all had a basis of learning the real world, the basics and evolving from there. The rules are the basic understanding of layout, type, elements of color, illustration and photography and how the eye views them and the brain deciphers it all when put together.