Revolution Lullabye

January 1, 2009

Samara, Making and Breaking the Grid

Samara, Timothy. Making and Breaking the Grid. Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2002.

The typographic grid – “an orthogonal planning system that parcels information into managable chunks,” creating meaningful relationships through the placement and scale of its informational elements – is considered by some graphic designers the foundation of good graphic design, and by others, a “stifling cage” that must be deconstructed or thrown away (9). Samara’s text is divided into two sections, “Making the Grid,” which contains a historical essay about the evolution of the modern design grid in the 19th-century industrial revolution, and “Breaking the Grid,” which begins with another historical essay that documents the movement against grids and rationalist design starting with Dada and other post-WWI reactive movements. Each section also has an exhibit section, where Samara displays examples of the different kinds of grid and non-grid layouts. Samara does not argue one school of thought – making or breaking – over another (though his deconstructed grid design of an MPH admissions flyer is in the “Breaking” exhibit section); rather, his balanced explanation and description of each camp calls upon graphic designers to make a conciencious choice whether to use grids in their design, not to rely on them as a default organizational tool.

 In “Making the Grid,” Samara dissects the fundamental elements of a grid and uses these elements to describe how grids in both the Making exhibit and the Breaking exhibit function. The elements include columns, modules (individual spaces), margins, flowlines (horizontal lines that form rows and guide the eye across the page), markers (consistent placement of running text, like headers or page numbers), and spatial zones (groups of modules serving a distinct purpose as a field.) He highlights four grid-based designs- manuscript (used in book publishing), column, modular, and hierarchal (used in Web design) – and five non-grid-based designs – grid deconstruction, linguistic deconstruction (altering type to echo spoken rhythm), spontaneous optical composition (form-based placement), conceptual/pictorial illusion (a concept forms the governing structure), and chance operation (controlled random placement.)

Quotable Quotes

“All design work involves problem solving on both visula and organizational levels” (22).

The benefits of grids include “clarity, efficiency, economy, and continuity” (22).

“Sometimes that content has its own internal structure that a grid won’t necessarily clarify; sometimes the content needs to ignore structure altogether to create specific kinds of emotional reactions in the intended audience; sometimes a designer simply envisions a more complex intellectual involvement on teh part of the audience as part of their experience of the piece” (120).

Notable Notes

Interesting historical context for Making the Grid – ancient belief of the grid as an organizing structure following the axis of the intersection of sky and earth, Arts and Crafts movement in 19th century Britain favored design that had form follow function (continued by Frank Lloyd Wright in the US), the industrial revolution drove a need to order the world, International Style, 20th century modernism favored simplicity, corporations liked grids because they introduced continuity of design in which many workers could collaborate on the content of a project, redesign of the National Parks Services brochures in the 1970s with consistent bars and grids.

Interesting historical context of Breaking the Grid – Dadaism, Cubism, collage and montage, using Saussure and Pierce semiotics to see text as signs (semiotics), WWI reaction, WWII reaction, opposition to the status quo, rationalism, order, reaction to the horrors of the wars, Civil Rights movement, hippie movement, underground culture, 1984 Apple computer gave amateurs the tools to be designers (without having the formal grid-design training graphic designers had, so these new designers relied on intiution and felt-sense), look-at typography  (not look-through)

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