Asymmetric Grids - Side Effects

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The importance of asymmetrical grids

The asymmetrical side-column layout is a powerful design tool. Tom Arah looks at how the leading DTP packages enable you to make the most of it - or not. 

asymmetric grids

One of the most elementary of desktop publishing mistakes is to treat the page as you would in a word processor. Working in this design auto-pilot mode produces layouts that automatically take up the full width of the page - almost inevitably A4 - with maybe a centred paragraph here or there to add some pretence of variety. The results are incredibly dull and commonplace, but far worse, they also go against the fundamental principle of good design - they are actually difficult to read. The reason is simple. In the process of reading, the eye has to constantly shift its focus and tests have proven that it is most comfortable reading line lengths of around 56 characters or around 8 words. As I write this page in Word, with margins of 2cm all round and text in Arial 11pt, each of my lines is approximately 17 words long, over twice the ideal. In other words, the apparently safe full-width A4 design is not safe at all.

Of course I'm not saying that lines of this length will eventually leave readers clutching their eyes in agony, but the good designer is always looking to make the reading experience as easy and satisfying as possible. As such, it's important to realise that full-width A4 is definitely not a perfect design size. There is no reason why it should be as the format was picked by a committee in revolutionary France based not on aesthetics but on ergonomics. The format's strength is the fact that A0 is exactly twice the size of A1, which is twice the size of A2 and so on. What this means in practice is that an A4 sheet, for example, rotated on its side and folded in half will produce two A5 pages. This standardization has such huge practical - and therefore price - advantages that there is little chance of another format replacing it until we pull out of Europe or are invaded by America. In the meantime, designers had better get used to working with A4 and turning it to their advantage.

There are two obvious options that solve the A4 line-length problem. The simplest is just to increase the size of the margins. The white space this opens up gives the feeling of openness and immediately makes the text seem more important and more inviting. Increasing the margin far more on one side than the other also allows an attractive asymmetry to be set up. This would be a natural choice for a publication, such as an important proposal or annual report, where it's important to give the idea of both luxury and control. The alternative solution of course is to have more than one column. By splitting my current A4 page into two equal columns with a 1.25cm gutter, for example, the line length for 11pt Arial is automatically reduced to around the ideal. By shrinking the point size to 9pt and my margins to 1.5cm and my gutters to 1cm, I can produce the same line lengths on a three-column layout. This would be an obvious choice for producing a newsletter-style layout with the option of spreading stories and graphics across multiple columns.

Side Bar Benefits

There is one other potential solution, however, which combines the advantages of both of the two obvious candidates - the asymmetrical side column or side bar. This is a thinner column down one side of the page which is not used for main body copy, but which can be called upon where necessary to hold relevant text or graphics. The advantages in terms of design are immense. The feeling of luxury and openness is created by the white space, while the asymmetry and the inclusion of some text - more often than not in a complementary font - adds contrast and variety. In terms of flexibility too, the design grid immediately opens up possibilities with the ability to range graphics either within the side bar (ideal for those less than exciting mug-shots), the main column or across the whole page.

It's not just the designer that benefits. The side column becomes an obvious place to pull out the importance of your message. In particular, without the clutter of body text it's easy for the eye to quickly take in headings and so grasp the main gist of the message. Moreover with the ability to range headings either within the side bar, column or whole page it becomes possible to set up a simple and clearly understood hierarchy of information. The side bar isn't just useful for headings. Any important information can be pulled out and emphasized so that the author of the piece, or a short summary, can equally be highlighted. Pull-out quotes and other text breakers can act as teasers inviting the reader to begin reading or, alternatively, interesting side issues can be aligned with their relevant text without disrupting the main reading flow. Essentially, by ensuring that the design and text are both pulling in the same direction, the side bar layout enables more information to be transmitted more easily, and ensures that it is better understood. Given this, it's hardly surprising that if you look in glossy magazines or the sort of expensive reports that design agencies produce, you'll often find the side column in action.

PageMaker's Handling

The side bar is hardly a rare layout choice practice, but that doesn't mean that the major desktop publishing programs have appreciated its importance as I discovered recently when I decided to redesign a regular programme of events I produce with PageMaker. In fact this publication is not really an obvious candidate for a side bar layout as its third-A4 page size meant that its line-length was already just about ideal. However the nature of the publication with regular dates, venues, preview information and sponsors cried out for an easy-to-scan side column. By shrinking the body size, I opened up enough room for this and decided that the openness of the resulting white space would counter-balance the smaller point size and slightly too short line-length. (OK it's not exactly what I recommended earlier, but design rules are there to be broken).

The next step is to add the column guides. Simple you might think. Just move to the master page and call up the Layout menu's Column Guides dialog. The problem is that the dialog only allows you to set the number of columns and automatically assumes that these will be of equal size - there isn't even any feedback on column width. A quick comparison with Word's Column's dialog which allows asymmetrical layouts to be created easily shows just how embarrassing this level of control is in the market-leading DTP program. The only option is to create the desired number of columns and to then drag them into place. To ensure accuracy and consistency on double page layouts you'll either have to zoom in and use the rulers or you can think laterally. For example, I can create a layout with four columns and then drag in manual guides after the first. I can then change the layout to two columns and drag the gutter into position over the existing guides.

Once these column guides are in place they act as the grid into which the graphics and text are slotted. The advantage of PageMaker's grid-based but freeform layout approach is that it's possible to drag the text block across both the side bar and the main body column. Using style formatting it's then possible to create a left margin indent on the Normal style to ensure that all body text is justified within the main column. Using other styles for dates and venue information with a corresponding right margin, it's possible to ensure that this text aligns within the side bar, while heading tags can be set to run the full width of both. Job finished? Hardly. The problem, of course, is that the text in the side bar and body column are not side-by-side. Wherever there is text in the side bar there is empty space in the body column. With long sections of text in the side bar this looks ridiculous and the waste of space simply can't be justified in a tight job like this.

What is needed is a way of forcing one paragraph to align with another so that they both start at the same vertical position on the page, but this capability simply doesn't exist in PageMaker. The only possible solution is to cut out all text intended for the side column and to paste it into separate text blocks that are then moved into position and aligned by eye. On the 28 page programme that means well over 60 separate text blocks. This immediately means a lot of work, but it also means a loss of flexibility. The side bar text is no longer part of the main body of the text so that editing and proofing immediately becomes more complex. The break-up into separate stories also causes problems if the publication is going to be output to HTML as well as to paper. More fundamentally, the text in the two column is not linked so that, if the relevant body text moves, the side bar text does not automatically move with it. This is just about manageable in a design-intensive job like this where each page stands on its own, but for a long report of linked pages, changes to the front page of the report could mean that every single item in the side bar had to be manually repositioned!

Ventura to the Rescue

Clearly there has to be a better way of producing and controlling side bar layouts. XPress falls into much the same category as PageMaker although its ability to anchor text boxes is an advance in terms of flexibility - though not ease of use - for longer layouts. The big step forward comes with the move to Corel Ventura thanks to its ability to control paragraph positioning with the Breaks tab of its Paragraph Properties dialog. Breaks are primarily used for forcing a paragraph to begin a new column or a new page or to stay linked to the following paragraph, but they can also be used for controlling line breaks. By default each paragraph has a line break after it so that the following paragraph automatically follows on below. With the Breaks control, however, it is possible to switch off this line break so that the following paragraph overwrites the preceding paragraph.

Obviously having two paragraphs overwriting each other isn't much use by itself (!), but it can be combined with left and right margin settings to produce exactly what we are looking for - side-by-side paragraphs. By setting up these paragraph properties as tags it becomes possible to easily and consistently create the side bar effect we are looking for although we are actually working within a single Ventura column. We can then drag in some guidelines to act as the grid for positioning graphic frames and we're ready to go. The beauty is that because all text stays together as a single story the whole process can be easily automated. With the correct template it is even possible to create side bar layouts automatically as soon as text is imported from the word-processor. It's also relatively simple to anchor pictures to text in the side bar so that long documents remain completely flexible and also ready for successfully outputting to HTML.

Ventura's control over Breaks is certainly a powerful feature, but it only goes so far. Originally, for example, I thought that I would be able to combine it with the program's control over vertical positioning to ensure that text in the side bar automatically appeared at a specified position or at the bottom of the page. This would be particularly useful, for example, for ensuring that venue information was always locatable at the same set position on the page or that sponsor information tidily finished off each column. The ability is there, but the positioning of the follow-on text in the main column is affected which renders the control useless. Another drawback is that, because the side bar and body text effect is created within a single column, it's impossible to create designs based on a single side bar with multiple body columns. The biggest problem, however, is the fact that the vertical positioning of the paragraph immediately following the side-by-side paragraphs is not solely determined by the depth of the body column paragraph. This means that if the side bar text takes up more vertical space than the body paragraph next to it, an ugly spacing gap will open up.


If the body text was set to have no inter-paragraph spacing this problem could more or less be worked around by judicious use of forced line breaks rather than true paragraph breaks, but it's clear that we're forcing Ventura into areas that were never envisioned and haven't been catered for. What we need is a dedicated approach that fully recognises the benefits of the asymmetrical column grid. Surprisingly this is offered by the DTP program that normally brings up the rear when it comes to design control, Adobe FrameMaker. To create a side bar in FrameMaker all you need to do is to click the Room for Side Headings option in the Column Layout dialog and to specify a width and gutter. A nice touch is that it's possible to set the position to be either left or right or nearest or furthest from the binding (the latter is a particularly good option to make it as easy as possible for the reader to scan for information).

Selecting OK automatically creates the layout. Initially the side column looks much like any other column, but when a text file is imported the difference is immediately clear as the text does not automatically flow within it. To make text flow in the side bar it is necessary to select it and then call up the Paragraph Designer dialog's Pagination tab. Using this, it is simple to set a paragraph - or more usefully a paragraph tag - to run across the full width of the page, stay within the body column or stay within the side bar. A nice touch is that it's also possible to set the following body paragraph to align with either the top of the side head or its first or last baseline.

FrameMaker's dedicated approach immediately solves the two main problems seen with Ventura. It has no difficulty producing a single narrow side bar to work with multiple body columns, it simply column balances the text above and below the heading. Even more importantly, the body paragraphs are not affected by the depth of the side-head so that their spacing remains regular. For producing clean, easy-to-navigate and easy-to-read reports FrameMaker's side-head feature is ideal. However, the system is by no means perfect - especially for design-intensive work. In particular there are no options to have multiple paragraphs following each other in the side column without affecting the flow in the main columns. In other words it's impossible to automatically have a title followed by a byline with the body text aligned next to the title. Equally there are no absolute or relative positioning controls so that the idea of a pull-out quote or a list of side notes automatically lined up at the bottom of the column is impossible.

Of course the FrameMaker system was never really intended to be used like this and maybe it's a bit much to ask for from a program that is primarily aimed at corporate technical publishing. At least the developers of FrameMaker have recognised the importance of side column layouts and have come up with a dedicated solution. However, the developers of PageMaker, XPress, and - to a lesser extent - Ventura, have no such excuses. The situation is very similar to that I discussed in issue 36 regarding the importance and benefits of the horizontal baseline grid and the almost total lack of support offered to desktop publishers wanting to make use of it. The asymmetrical column grid is just as important a design tool as the baseline grid and even more under-appreciated. When a top-of-the-range program like PageMaker makes it difficult to even create an asymmetrical layout let alone make efficient use of it, you have to wonder if its developers have any experience of practical design at all.

June 1998

Tom Arah

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