A Brief History in Layout Design: The Early Grid Systems

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We hear about International Style, also known as Swiss Style, often. And for good reason. The asymmetrical organization of design elements captivates the eye and the mind. International Style is famous for disrupting print design. Let’s review the history of early grid systems for layout design that led up to the International Style.

Sessions College professor Thom McKenna explains the early grid systems in this excerpt from his course, Advanced Layout Design:

Early Grid Systems

Various applications of grid design came into widespread use after the Second World War as corporations began to orchestrate communications programs for their large organizations.

Layout Design

The designer Paul Rand, who was a pioneer of graphic design in America in the 1940s, was one of the catalysts for convincing the business world that “good design was good for them.” Rand was big on selling the idea that systems of design could help organize a company’s public image as well as internally organize a company’s collateral and marketing structure.

These systems were designed to accommodate a company’s design needs—on its packaging, print advertising, and later, in television spots—with a rigorous enforcement of the grid system that unified these communications by using unique proportions, materials, and other production constraints.

Thus, the company design manual was born, providing detailed design measurements meticulously cataloged to ensure visual conformity at every level. By the 1970s, the practice of formatting corporate communications with grid systems in mind was an expected approach to achieving visual continuity.

This rigorous approach, now commonly referred to as the International Style, played an integral role in making graphic design a discipline. Designers, being designers, became so reliant upon this system that some used the grid as an end in itself, and overt grid systems soon became clichéd and commonplace.

Today we find a world of design that has its roots in the grid system invented a mere 80 years ago. The grid has come to be seen as one of many essential tools, along with images, color, and typography, that designers use to communicate their visual message.

At the same time, the past 20 to 30 years have given rise to an experimentation with the visual potential of the grid form. This type of deconstruction is prominent today and proves the continuous innovation which is the hallmark of graphic design.

Grid layout from a Florentine magazine printed in Italy 1914 (left) and grid layout on current technology (right).

Improve your layouts by enrolling in HOW Design University’s Advance Layout Design course.