Layout Grids - On The Grid

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The importance of good grid handling

Tom Arah looks at the underlying basis of all design - the grid - and investigates how the two PC-based DTP rivals, Ventura and PageMaker, approach the issue.

Setting up a baseline grid

I've been thinking about the principles of good layout a great deal recently for two reasons. The first is that I've been working on producing the DTP masterclass (issue ). The second is that I've been reading the recently published "Grids" by André Jute, which is a modern look at that old-fashioned fundamental principle of graphic design - the layout grid. I say old-fashioned because, with today's onscreen layout, it's easy to forget just how all-important the grid used to be. I still remember the days when text was typeset to a given width and output as continuous galleys which were then cut to length and manually pasted onto lay-up sheets that had been marked up with the vertical and horizontal guides of the chosen page design.

The central point that Jute's book makes is that, although the production process has changed out of all recognition, the underlying grid should never have been forgotten. The layout flexibility offered by the computer means that, if we so chose, we could design a publication with no layout limitations whatsoever. Text could be entered anywhere on the page, at any point-size, to any column width and interspersed with images of any size, shape and orientation. We never actually do this, however, because the grid is not just a practical limitation to be overcome. Rather, it serves a number of crucial functions for both the reader and the designer.

The Benefits of Discipline

A good grid forces order onto the layout and so acts as an orienting device enabling the reader to knows where to look for information and to understand its relative importance. Just as importantly the grid works on an aesthetic level. The readers might not consciously be aware of it, but subliminally they pick up on the fact that everything is well ordered and in its place. If a picture juts fractionally into the column next to it something seems to be slightly amiss, but if the lines of text align neatly across the columns on a page some fundamental and reassuring logic seems to be at work.

Grids are equally important for the designer. By putting in the time to set up a grid that works, the design decisions that crop up during the production process fall naturally into place. Essentially if you get the grid right, you can be confident that your end results will be a success. Moreover, good design is a balance of order and variation and the imposed discipline of the grid gives the scope to creatively break free. A rotated image, for example, will stand out far more if it is surrounded by others that are not. Ultimately the apparent limitations of the grid turn out to be fruitful both in terms of productivity and in terms of creativity.

When computers first came to be used in the publishing process, however, both the limitations and the benefits of the grid were quickly forgotten. With word processors the default page size and margins were largely taken as givens and, when columns were introduced, these were always of equal width with text flowing automatically and unavoidably from one column to the next. Even today this is largely the case and not even the most advanced and design-conscious of today's word processors allows the enforcement of the interline grid to ensure that lines of text line up horizontally across columns.

The Ventura Automated Approach

The advent of desktop publishing changed all this with its wysiwyg page layout view and the ability to position text and graphics anywhere on the layout. The first of the PC-based DTP programs was Ventura Publisher and this introduced a number of grid-based features. Custom page sizes could be created by resizing and repositioning the base page frame. Multiple columns could be set up and the width of each could be precisely controlled so that it was possible to produce asymmetric grids. To help the layout process it was possible to set floating frames to automatically snap to the page's columns. Ventura also offered the advanced feature of a line snap, which forced frames to line up exactly with the body text tag's leading. This was intended to ensure that both graphics and text lined up with the underlying horizontal grid, a feature essential for high quality design.

However there were a number of problems. The first was that this horizontal interline grid was invisible which made checking alignment difficult. The second was that the interline grid was measured from the page edge rather than from the page margins so that unless the top margin was set to a multiple of interline spacing, floating frames were actually forced to misalign with the grid! Far more fundamental and unavoidable was - and is - the problem of non-body text. Unless the leading of each paragraph was an exact multiple of the body text's, it would immediately disrupt the interline grid. In other words, a slightly larger subheading or a smaller bullet point would mean that the following lines would no longer line up across columns and, more noticeably, the columns would no longer line up at the bottom of the page.

The only way around this was to only create tags with extra above and below spacing worked out to ensure that the following paragraph was back on the grid. Again, however, there were problems. For example the above spacing of a subheading at the top of a page would automatically be ignored so that a special tag "sub top" would have to be created that took this into account. Likewise, if the subheading took up two or three lines instead of one, special "sub 2" and "sub 3" tags would again have to be created. When you remember that the early versions of Ventura did not allow local overrides so that every exception needed to have its own tag created - or worse an empty frame added to push down the text - you begin to see why the interline grid fell into disuse. Ultimately Ventura was not suited for design-intensive work, and on aesthetic grounds it suffered as a result - I doubt that many design awards have been won with it.

To only judge the program against this standard, however, is unfair. Ventura's frame-based text flow and tag-based formatting might be unsuited for the demands of labour-intensive grid-based design, but they come into their own in the area of document automation. In fact in many ways Ventura's main strengths are diametrically opposed to the discipline of the grid. The flexibility offered for retrospectively and automatically changing a layout, for example, would be anathema to a purist like André Jute. To him the idea that at any point during the design process you could easily change all the fundamentals of a page layout, from its size and orientation to the number and width of its columns, would simply suggest that you did not have the right grid set up originally. In many ways he would be right, but I have to say I've found the ability too useful too many times to be willing to give it up.

Vertical Justification

Even more telling is Ventura's ability to vertically justify a column. This is the process whereby spacing is automatically and imperceptibly added above and below all paragraphs - often called "feathering" - to ensure that the last lines of columns line up across the page. To an extent this can be seen a grid-based feature as ragged columns are very noticeable and clearly aesthetically unpleasing. On the other hand, to achieve the effect, the interline grid of lines of text lining up across columns is inevitably lost. Again purists might frown, but I've found the capability invaluable. On a regular price list, for example, the number of entries I had to fit in to the given number of pages would change literally up until the minute I output the final artwork. Thanks to vertical justification I could ensure that the pages always looked finished and professional even if they were never going to win awards.

Generally speaking, Ventura offered its own automation strengths that made up for the limitations of its grid-based capabilities. Since Corel took over the program, however, it has been moving the program increasingly in the design-intensive direction. Most noticeable - and most welcome - is the ability to apply local overrides so that individual paragraphs can be controlled without the need to create a new tag. New, more obviously grid-based features have also been added. For example it is now possible to add guidelines both interactively, by dragging down from the rulers, or precisely, from a dedicated dialog. It is even possible to set up a visible grid of automatically repeating green guidelines onscreen to help alignment.

With column, interline, guideline and grid snap you would expect the fan of grids to be content, but the capabilities have only been half thought through. The repeating gridlines for example can only be absolutely regular and the distance between them is specified in millimetres while an interline grid would obviously be set up in points. More bizarrely, while the origin of the visible grid can be changed, the origin of the interline snap is still set to the top of the page rather than the margin. Again unless the top margin is set to be a multiple of the body text leading, interline snap actually ensures that lines of text and graphics do not line up!

Such problems can be worked around or lived with, but far more worrying is the fact that Corel does not seem to have appreciated Ventura's own alternative strengths. Rather than expanding on the automation of document design, this feature has been allowed to wither. I was horrified to find that in the latest Ventura, vertical justification is simply not working properly. Rather than spreading the extra spacing needed imperceptibly through all the paragraphs in a column, Ventura 7 adds the maximum spacing allowed to paragraphs as it works its way down the column. This leads to greater spacing for paragraphs at the top of the column than at the bottom, an effect that could never be desirable and which shows that the programmers in charge have simply no idea of what the feature was designed to do.

The latest Ventura, in trying to have it both ways, ends up falling between the two stools of document automation and design-intensive production. The reason for the shift, of course, is that Corel is trying to emulate the market leader, Adobe PageMaker. PageMaker has always been the software choice for the traditional graphic designer trained on the principles of the grid because it uses the same artboard metaphor. Just as in the past, the user prepares their layout by first setting up margin, column and additional guides and then manually placing the freeform text blocks and images within this grid.

PageMaker Hands-On

This computerised simulation of the old cut-and-paste process is fundamental to PageMaker and, in the hands of an expert, can lead to excellent results. Closer analysis however reveals that PageMaker's grid-based features are actually surprisingly sparse. Setting up an asymmetric grid, for example, is absurdly complex as the columns command only gives the option of creating equally-sized columns which must then be repositioned using the onscreen ruler. Adding further guides individually is just as laborious and just as likely to be inaccurate. Even worse in terms of the interline grid there is no Ventura-style option to set up an automatic line snap to ensure that text and graphics align across columns.

For a program whose whole working method is ostensibly built on grids, PageMaker certainly doesn't go out of its way to help the user to set up and use them. In fact the situation is not quite as bad as it first appears as there are some hidden features to help. A working interline snap can be created, for example, using the following workaround. Set the vertical ruler units to your body text's interline spacing with the Preferences command. Make sure that Snap to Rulers is set to on under the View menu and then drag the ruler origin down from the edge of the page to the top margin. You'll also have to change the default leading method of your body text style from proportional to baseline using the Paragraph dialog's Spacing sub dialog. Obvious really.

The system works but it's hardly intuitive and still needs constant checking to make sure that all images and text boxes are lined up on the main ruler units not on the subdivisions. The major problem is that, as with Ventura's line snap, the interline grid is invisible so that the whole process is like working half-blind. In fact this problem can be overcome by using the Grid Manager add-in. This allows repeating guidelines to be added automatically to the page. This is useful for splitting the design into set numbers of columns and rows and also for automatically adding baseline guidelines to make a visible interline grid. At last we are back to the basic functionality of the manual lay-up sheets!

Don't get too excited, however, as there are still a number of problems. The dialog is frustratingly complex and can lead to unexpected results. It took me nearly an hour to work out that the interline grid wasn't quite working because my page origin was not set exactly to the top of the page. The Grid Manager also raises more expectations than it fulfils. It's impossible to automatically add and position individual guidelines or even to automatically set up irregular grids like the popular two and a half column set-up. Other features that would be welcome would be the ability to add mid-column or mid-gutter vertical guides and the ability to hide and reveal sets of guides independently of others so that the interline grid could be hidden, for example, but the column guides still shown.

The grid manager is definitely moving in the right direction but promises much more than it delivers. More to the point such power shouldn't be hidden away in a semi-detached add-on. For a program like PageMaker such functionality should be absolutely core. The irony is that PageMaker's grid-based strengths have been allowed to stagnate because the program's new owner, Adobe, has been desperately trying to copy the layout flexibility and automation of its old rival Ventura. The recent attempt to introduce frames to control text flow and layout adjustment to automate major design changes was welcome, but the implementation was half-baked. Has anyone used automatic layout adjustment and been genuinely happy with the results? Has anyone actually used 6.5's frames at all?

The problem is that just as Ventura's design-intensive features have only been half realised so have PageMaker's document automation capabilities. I'm not saying that either company is wrong to want to add the best of the other's features as there is no intrinsic reason why a DTP program should not offer the best of both worlds. The problem is that at the moment neither seems to have a clear idea of exactly what they are trying to achieve and so have lost sight of their existing strengths.

Even worse I don't think that either company has ever had a true understanding of the aesthetic and functional importance of the layout grid. This means that, over a decade after DTP first arrived, there still has been no improvement to the computer implementation of the most fundamental of design tools. Of course good grid-based design can still be produced on the computer and I'm not seriously suggesting that we would be better off in the days of cut-and-paste. However, the fact that ten years on it is still down to the user to learn what the grid can offer and to then struggle to achieve it is a real indictment.

As the situation stands, if you want to appreciate the benefits and elements of good structured design you'd be well advised to read a book like Grids. In the longer term let's hope that the Adobe and Corel programmers do too.

Tom Arah

November 1997

Grids (the structure of graphic design) by André Jute (+ disk of grids) is available for £22.50 from RotoVision (01273 727268)

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