The Debate // CTS

This weeks lecture, ‘The Debate’, discussed ideas behind the grid by expressing arguments both for and against this well known design tool.

As designers, grids help us with things such as; layout, spacing, consistency, structure of components as well as organising information. ‘The Debate’ lecture looked at the universal lasting value of the grid whilst arguing a broader view of the grid, beyond graphic design and more into the ideology of the grid.

Grids can be extremely complex when used in design, not only graphic but also in thing such as architecture. It acts as a standard basis for all designers to decode the layout of their creations to ensure that the final product is both well organised and visually appealing.

‘The designer’s work should have the clearly intelligible, functional and aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking’ – Josef Müller-Brockmann

Josef Müller-Brockmann is a swiss designer who focused greatly on grids and structure in his work. He described the grid as a positive thing and a great pathway to good design. In a text written by Müller-Brockman, ‘Grid and Design Philosophy’, It is said that it shows the designer conceives his work in terms that are constructive and orientated tot he future… Constructive design which is capable of analysis and reproduction can influence and enhance the taste of a society and the way it conceives forms and colours“. This shows the importance of the grid and also demonstrates how popular it has become over time.

Human psychology proves that we, as a species, are attracted to order , structure and other forms of organisation, our brain seeks out relations between different elements, not only on a page but also in everyday visuals. The grid plays a huge part in helping us do this, so does this really help create more visually appealing design?

The grid argument was broken down into six different perceptions:
1. Method
2. Order
3. Tool for creativity
4. Tool for Creating Visual Expression
5. Universality
6. An Enduring Imperative

Upon the invention of the Apple Mac back in 1981, and with digital design on the rise, grids were much more common, in modern design, programmes and software such as indesign and photoshop will provide you with and on screen grid to guide you in your work. this was a huge step in the world of design as before this time, all design work would be broken down into things such as copy text, layout, colour etc; all of these tasks being done by different practitioners. The computer age allowed designers to do all of this themselves. This meant that the computer was used greatly as a tool for creativity and also a tool for visual expression. It allowed them to have greater choice when deciding how to place elements on a page by using a grid or maybe even an anti-grid? Below is Jeffery Keedy’s work for the LA Contemporary event programme (1988), this is a great example of design being used as a form of expression. As you can see the page is very busy and cluttered. This creates interesting design that some may argue does not work as the eye does not analyse the text.

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Jeffery Keedy – (1988)


Another example of this is in April Greiman’s work seen in Design Quarterly no.133 (1986), a poster demonstrating forms of self expression and freedom. This has huge links to the postmodernism art movement with bold colour and intriguing layout.

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April Greiman – (1986)

In contrast to this whole idea of ‘breaking the grid’, is earlier examples of design. In the late 1920’s the world of design faced a common nature to ‘declutter’ a page. Historical times would see decorative letterforms at the start of a block of text and also different decorative borders and forms on the page, this was soon to be demolished in the time of the dominating grid and structure. This complied well with the human desire to organise and order information in a systematic manner. A clear example of this is in Jan Tschichold’s work for Leaflet advertising in his publication ‘Die Neue Typographie’. Jan Tschichold influenced Josef Müller-Brockmann hugely with his modernist views which allowed a universal coherency in organising the elements on a page.

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Jan Tschichold – Die Neue Typographie

As well as design feature, Grids were also used in art forms to create harmony on a page. This is evident in Piet Mondrian’s work which displays colour as form.

“I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects.” – Piet Mondrian

An article online stated that “He simplified the subjects of his paintings down to the most basic elements, in order to reveal the essence of the mystical energy in the balance of forces that governed nature and the universe.” This could also link to the modernistic views of Jan Tschichold as well as linking in with Josef Müller-Brockmann’s grid format.

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Piet Mondrian – Composition

The importance of the grid is also demonstrated in architecture by using a modular system of proportions. Architects such as Le Corbusier focus greatly on this organised structure in their design. Le Corbusier is responsible for the creation of many different modernist buildings all around the world. The grid is evident in his design as it is very ‘aligned’ and ‘tidy’. A good example of this is the “Mill Owners’ Association Building, in Ahmedabad”.

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Le Corbusier – Ahmedabad

(More Here)

Another way that this modernistic approach has influenced design as a whole was through the bauhaus movement. The modern, simplified visuals were dominant in the time of the bauhaus movement where posters and buildings were very sharp and edgy instead of being too complex, this was in favour of the grid system. With reference to an earlier quote from the reading given to us before the lecture; Müller-Brockmann once said “Constructive design which is capable of analysis and reproduction can influence and enhance the taste of a society and the way it conceives forms and colours”. The Bauhaus movement was hugely about reproduction and making art available to the whole of society, so in a way, the grid played a huge part in this accessibility.

The grid is brilliant for design concept but content is often forgotten about. When used to its full potential, the grid can help convey information whilst considering its context and content at the same time. A good example of this is “Schiff Nach Europa”, a novel by Markus Kutter.
This translates to “visually organised” which is very self explanatory within the book. It uses a mix of different typographic forms in text to almost create image relating to its content. this can generally keep the reader intrigued also by making the visuals interesting.

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Schiff Nach Europa – Markus Kutter

Another aspect that the grid will often need to consider is its universality. This is a way to make all cultures understand the message that the design is trying to convey. For example, the grid is used to structure. We as a species like to seek out relationships and order. When this is displayed in design, we find it extremely visually appealing. This can be seen in things such as pictograms for the “Munich Olympics”, semiotics allows us to understand the message, and the grid allows us to take not and organise the information that the design is trying to give us. It is great in terms of universality as everyone can understand it and decipher its meaning.

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Munich Olympics – Otl Aicher (1972)

All of this came to great debate in the second half of the lecture where we discussed the social implications and deeper meaning behind the restrictions of structure and format.

One of the main arguments expressed in the session was in that fact that although designers are always working with content, it can sometimes be overlooked and unconsidered in favour of the design elements itself, in this case, formation to a grid. We looked into the deeper meaning of this and spoke about the control and rational ordering of life itself without even considering what goes on within this order and the deeper insights to its effect. For example, land has been structured, sectioned and dispersed in the name of profit for many years now but it was very rare for the people on that land to be considered or even taken into account in the mathematical ordering of such material conflict; the constant question being “Who has control?” or “What purpose is there for this?”. This ideology applies to the design of the grid, Why is the grid so restrictive and structured when surely good creativity come from freedom and expression? This denial of complex design neutralises our surroundings and creates a common order. A good example of this is in modern day housing, many flats and other compounds often replicate the same structured design. Things such as council housing and office cubicles is often a reproduction of one design. This can be seen as lacking in character and individuality as well as supporting the idea that the ideology of a grid is all about restriction and contributes to more social issues such as dominating and subduing others.

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Land Structure Ideology

“Gridded space does more than create a blank canvas for development. It subdues those who must live in the space, but disorientating their ability to see and evaluate relationships. In that sense the planning of neutral space is an act of dominating and subduing others” – Sennet, 1960, p.60

“The grid is extremely difficult to use in the service of invention… when we examine the careers of those artist who have been most committed to the grid… their work ceases to develop and becomes involved instead in repetition” – Krauss, 1994, p.160

The grid was said to lack freedom and expression and a great way of conflicting the grids restrictions was through collage. Artists such as “John Heartfield” and “Hannah Hoch” demonstrate how form and layout can still be considered in collage without using a grid.

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Examples of Collage

Overall, I think that both Grid methods and Anti-Grid methods work well in design, depending on the concept and nature of the work, both could be applicable, with todays ever-changing modernistic approach to design, I believe that the grid is essential and can be interpreted by every individual designer to give them the freedom to expression and creativity whilst using the grid itself.

This CTS lecture dealt with the relationship between text and imagery well by explaining the importance of how well the designs layout is considered. The grid can help organise both text and imagery whilst becoming an image in itself. The grid allows the human mind to process what they are being shown. Also, it allows the information to be broken down a lot of the time into smaller sections. Without a grid, the text/image could be seen as being more expressive. For example, collage is a great form of expression that often does not use the grid. The text and imagery become and image or a piece of art that the viewer can interpret individually. with regards to using the grid as a means to processing information, grids are often used in semiotics. This is so that the symbols and visuals are easily visible/ understandable universally. Grids can ultimately be used to structure and organise text, both grids and anti-grids can be used to create a picture or visual whether it include text or not.


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