Guest writer: Isolde Roche
We are surrounded by grids all the time. They shape our experience of everything, from navigating a city to reading an advert to shopping on ebay, but we rarely question them, or even know they are there. Grids are sexy, interesting and shouldn’t just be the thing of art lectures and design text books. The history of the grid is full of interesting characters and is entwined in some of the most important historical events of the last 150 years.
What is a grid?
For many, it’s an organizing principle - a path to follow, a guide to help you on your way. We pass through the grid on a daily basis, navigating the winding streets of our cities, turning corners, crossing roads, adhering to a system designed to make living easier. In this case, the grid is a modern city plan, the blue prints of a sky scraper or the baseline grid of a printed document.
Grids as an enabler of creativity rather than a restrictor
Grids shouldn’t be restrictive. Grids exist in nature and nature likes a certain amount of uniformity. DNA - the bare bones of us - is inherently a grid based system. Grids have featured in almost every form of civilized society. However, it’s in the last 150 years that we’ve seen a massive increase in the way the grid system impacts on human beings and the things we create.
Organisation in a time of chaos
The Industrial Revolution (1720 -1840) saw a time of dramatic social change. The influx of people to our cities and the revolutions in both France and America saw a decrease in the gap between rich and poor and an immeasurable improvement in the literacy and numeracy skills of the general populace. The Arts and Crafts movement originated in the late 18th century and is seen as a reaction against the age of mass production. The movement embraced the bespoke, the hand-made and the original.
Counter intuitively, the grid was also embraced by members of the movement. William Morris - one of Arts and Crafts most famous flag wavers - ran a publishing house called the Kelmscott Press, famous for intricately designed and finely finished books that were also created with a carefully considered grid system - and a highly tuned relationship between negative and positive space.
The architect and sometime book designer Frank Lloyd Wright travelled to the UK during the height of the Arts and Crafts movement and was heavily influenced by the works of Morris and Co.
Never before had the grid been so important.
The path to Modernism
Further North, the Glasgow Four, former students of Glasgow School of Art and Design, and consisting of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances MacDonald and her husband Herbert MacNair, were taking the Arts and Crafts movement one step further and mixing the aesthetic created by Morris and co with a more geometric sensibility. Their publication The Studio heavily influenced designers throughout Europe, including a German architecture student Peter Behrens, who would go on to teach Walter Gropius the founder of the famous Bauhaus movement. Behrens was an artistic consultant at white goods manufacturer AEG, and heavily influenced by the mass production model they followed. Unlike William Morris, he embraced the age of mechanical reproduction rather than fighting against it. If one was going to produce an exact replica of an object over and over again, the grid became ever more important.
Behrens was one of the first designers to set a piece of text in a sans serif. Sans serif texts look inherently more ‘blocky’ on the page and therefore the relationship between negative and positive space needs to be more carefully considered.
After the 1st world war, Behrens’ student Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar. The school followed the principles of modernism - a paired down aesthetic where relationships between text and space became increasingly more important on the printed page. After the rise of fascism, many German designers fled to Switzerland, where what is now known as the International Style developed. Jan Tschichold was one of the members of the Bauhaus movement. He advocated the use of standard paper formats (can you imagine what we would do without A format paper sizes?) and favoured off centre text. He popularized the use of the Van Der Graaf Canon in book design - a method of rules and grids that made the layout of books more uniform and allowed the designer to spend more time considering layout and aesthetics.
The Corporate Grid
During the 1960s, the grid was king. American designer Paul Rand had been convincing big business since the 40’s that design was worth the investment. With designers such as Wim Crouwel (see him in the film Helvetica) working on massive corporate design projects, the grid became integral to having a uniform design on the myriad items of printed matter that were being created by corporations. Again the grid becomes an aid to creativity rather than a barrier.
Are grids a thing of the past?
Today, with less focus on the print, it’s the responsive grid of modern web design that wins out. We are now fully immersed in the digital age, and design is having to change its attitude to the grid. However, a certain amount of restriction does not hamper creativity. It enables it. Without the grid, our visual world would be a very different place.
The grid is still important.
We are still firmly on the grid.
Isolde Roche, self proclaimed sci-fi nut, creative at Pan Macmillan and ex-graphic designer, blogs regularly for Tor Books