Elements of Book Design: The Grid

One element of good book design, or page layout for any print or digital application, is the grid. The grid could be compared to the rough framing of a building. In the building, the framing determines where the interior finishes will go and how they will be fastened to the structure. Similarly, a grid in graphic and book design determines the interior divisions upon which the elements, from type to visuals like illustrations and photographs, are laid out.

It is important to note that sometimes the grid is cast aside in favor of a more expressive approach versus the rationalism of the grid. However, in the instance of a traditional, trade book that presents a strong narrative into which the reader will lose themselves, I favor using a grid to create predictable and purposeful form that does not distract from the content the reader is after.

Grids can be designed around several styles. In this post, I am showing a proportional geometric grid that is based on subdivisions of the book dimensions. The German designer Paul Renner described a similar process in his book Die Kunst der Typographie, published in 1948. The grid here is 18 X 18 for each page, or 36 X 18 for a spread. Note that the diagonal lines intersect each division.

The document grid with horizontal lines intersecting the diagonal line.

Below is the text box stretched out over the grid. This particular book is over 400 pages long, so I wanted the text box to not get sucked into the gutter. There is also plenty of space at the top and bottom for headers and page numbers, and ample space on the outside edges for thumbs.

The text box with ample room along the margins for the gutter, headers, page numbers, and thumbs.

Next, I estimated the approximate leading and type size that I wanted to use. I then subdivided the grid units until I found the right match. In this instance, 2 units divided by 5 created the ideal leading for the type size. Digital typefaces allow this style of grid to really shine because the typefaces can be scaled to any size, into the thousandths if need be. Note that the baselines split every other grid line, adding a touch of the expressive to the geometric by both keeping with the grid and breaking it at set intervals.

The baselines, where the type will run, are built on the document grid.

Finally, the content is set into the text block, and headers and page numbers placed onto the grid.

The first lines of the paragraphs are indented 1 em, i.e. height of the leading. The block quotes are indented two vertical grid units into the text box.

New sections are conveyed with a line break, no indent, and small-caps. Having more than just a line break is important for when a new section starts at the top of a page.

Headers have a slight tint applied to fade them from the main text and thus be less distracting.

The reader sees the canvas of the typography stretched over the hidden frame of the grid.

Designing a book this way is very enjoyable. Some might argue that a grid will constrain the typography and other visual elements. But I think that the grid frees the designer to find expression through form.