Rebelling Against the Grid: Learning to Break the Rules of Graphic Design

Rebelling Against the Grid: Learning to Break the Rules of Graphic Design


Most things you look at from the layout of your city block to the website you’re viewing right now will be based on some sort of a grid. You don’t have to understand the application of grids to appreciate the organization and guidance they provide. However, when choosing graphic designers to enhance your company’s brand, or creatively engage your audience it’s wise to choose a team who not only understand the very fundamentals of the grid – but who can also buck the system when the time is right.

What is a Grid?

Grids can be as simple or as complex as you like, but every design will have one whether your designer actively engages with one or not. A grid, in its most basic form, is a plan to organizing the information you or your designer is meant to convey. Typically, you won’t actively see the grid on the page, but their influence is evident in the repeated form of columns, paragraphs, photo blocks, page edges, etc.

When used well, a grid offers flexibility to a designer without overwhelming them with the possibilities left by a completely blank page. Some have said that in order to be truly creative, one needs restraints – not open-ended possibilities. A grid gives just enough structure to be functional, but it also provides ample opportunity to deviate when it suits the designer. Grids also enhance the organization of any given piece and this, in turn, makes it easier for the reader, or person viewing the piece to understand what they’re looking at.

You may be familiar with a few grid concepts which provide the backbone to most works to true art and design:

  • Proportion: Grids have the innate ability to both develop and define the proportion of a piece. Often times, the proportions begin by echoing the final size of the ultimate project; whether that is a postcard, a magazine, a book, or a website—the shape and size of the paper or screen will often be reflected in the images and text blocks included in their layout.
  • Rule of Thirds: While closely tied to the Golden Ration, this is the concept that operates under an assumption of asymmetry where it’s believed an image is more engaging and dynamic when positioned off-center. By dividing your art space into thirds both horizontally and vertically, the natural focal point will be where the lines intersect.
  • Golden Ratio (also known as The Golden Mean, The Golden Section, or the Greek letter Phi): Derived from the Fibonacci sequence, this ratio can best be understood using the proportions of 1:1.618. By beginning with something called the golden rectangle, artists and designers can utilize this ratio to determine the most aesthetically pleasing placements for all elements their piece.

While these are merely the surface of grid concepts, they give you a deeper insight of the complexity at stake if you really want to design something noteworthy. As we’ve said, in order to break the rules of graphic design effectively, you’ll need a designer who understands the rules first. This means someone who can design effectively through the use of a well-defined grid.

Effective Grid Rebellion

Here are a few ways your designer may test the limits of the design space they’re given. Through being able to recognize them for what they are, you’ll have armed yourself with the toolkit needed to break boundaries for your brand.

  1. Escape The Edge. Whether the edge of a page, off the edge of a column, the central gutter, or your screen elements, thoughtful design can utilize the departure from the norm and create a more dynamic experience.
  2. Mix Up Your Typography. Typography in design is awesome. We’ve said it before. There are a number of ways the use of typography can enhance your design by breaking the grid. Here are a few examples:
    1. Wrapped text. Consider an article you’ve read recently with a typical set of columns. Generally, those columns are pretty straight forward blocks, which is effective for information, but not so for visual stimulation. By placing an interesting image in the center gutter between the two columns, the article text can wrap around the image to liven up the page.
    2. Not everything has to fit into neatly organized lines, columns, and page. Through embracing asymmetrical text blocks that do not follow the standard left to right, up to down modality, your designer can create some truly interesting pieces. This works great with labels for products, and posters, for example.
    3. Pull quotes. Most often used in news stories both printed and online – pull quotes are basically enlarged quotes designed to expand beyond the column or section through the use of larger fonts or inside a box. Utilizing this technique can break up long articles and give a much needed visual break.
    4. Tilted text. Similar to asymmetry, tilted text can give a visual pop to help enhance the look and feel of a design at the same time as rebelling against the constraints of the grid space.
  3. Mixed Media. By embracing the use of varying styles, a piece can break the typical rules of graphic design. Whether this be the well thought out placement of handwritten fonts in the middle of a piece predominantly comprised of sans serif fonts, or by bringing in the use of hand-drawn art to be incorporated into the design.
  4. Overlapping Images. Through the use of overlapping objects and images, your designs can take a more three-dimensional, making the visual components more compelling.
  5. Cross Overs. Utilizing grid aspects so they break from one section of the grid to another can keep the organizational component of the grid intact while shifting the overall look and feel to one that’s more impressive. This could be type, objects, or images.

There are a number of ways a designer can master the grid to become a design rebel. These tips are just a few of the examples of how this can happen. Are you a designer who has utilized different techniques? Feel free to share them with us in the comments section.

– Artwork Abode

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