Müller-Brockmann's Beethoven Poster

Beethoven Poster for the Zurich Town Hall, 1955.

Analysis of Grid, Field, and Matrix Types


I will search and present material that pertains to grid structures and dynamic layout solutions that will inform and inspire design, with the following goals in mind:

  • Promote an appreciation of the classic design approach by using a classic underlying grid structure
  • Generate a creative platform to enable the use of unconventional techniques that complement your typographic composition.

When considering either the complexity or the simplicity of grid structure within graphic design, I decided to begin with the classic grid and the person that popularized grid systems during the International Style: Josef Muller-Brockmann.

Josef Muller-Brockmann was born in 1914 and originally began his career as an illustrator. By the 1950’s, Brockmann had converted to the International Style and had built a reputation for adopting Akzidenz Grotesk to his otherwise statistical, dry, minimalist design approach. Muller-Brockmann popularized the grid system, “pairing down his work to the essentials necessary for what he considered an objective- even timeless- method of communication. In 1958, he founded New Graphic, an influential trilingual magazine promoting Swiss typography” (Armstrong).

Muller-Brockmann’s “Grid and Design Philosophy” is a concise, albeit essential, article about the importance of the designer in relation to the use of grid system through various methods of output. It is also through output, that we the viewer are exposed to the designer’s character- depth or lack thereof. Muller-Brockmann states, “Every visual creative work is a manifestation of the character of the designer. It is a reflection of his knowledge, his ability, and his mentality.” While I happen to agree with Muller-Brockmann on the surface of his statement, it strikes me as very limited. It’s difficult for me to fully invest in his point when there is uncertainty about predicting the approach of every designer. If I had to evaluate Muller-Brockmann’s own work based on his statement, I’m inclined to believe that he lacked versatility. His lack of abstract approach and inability to create aesthetically compelling work is evident in his redundancy and overuse of the grid system. At the same rate, there is an intrinsic depth to his blatant minimalist approach that is admirable, often effective for modern day solutions and therefore upholds a timeless design.

Muller-Brockmann’s overview of what a designer’s work should constitute strikes at the heart of good design thinking based upon minimalist thinking. His ideals narrowly define the approach of the creative designer and completely exclude the deconstruction or spontaneity of the grid. Despite Muller-Brockmann’s reverence for establishing popularity with grid systems, I strongly disagree with him. Consider the abstract works of the Psychedelic era and freeform typography or David Carson- yes, there is evidence of a grid, but unlike Muller-Brockmann’s work, there is aesthetic visual interest that is less restrictive on grid composition.

Based upon a project type and the design solution, breaking the grid will result in a highly more creative and effective approach in comparison. I think that by confining to a grid system for every design approach results in insanity as a creative designer. “Sometimes the content needs to ignore structure altogether to create specific kinds of emotional reactions in the intended audience” (Samara).

Being somewhat new to breaking the grid personally, I’ve since studied typographic grids through the expertise of Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style.” While Bringhurst in-depth analysis of typography ranges from charting average character count per line, rhythm and proportion and choosing and mixing type, et cetera, Bringhurst clearly defines shaping the page whilst typesetting. “The proportions of the page are like an interval in music. In a given context, some are consonant, others dissonant… an organic page looks and feels different from a mechanical page, and the shape of the page itself will provoke certain responses and expectations in the reader, independently or whatever text it contains” (Bringhurst).

Whereas Bringhurst’s technical savvy is inescapably dry, Timothy Samara fashions breaking the grid through another historical era, the Swiss International Style, specifically of the Basel School and Emil Ruder. “Unlike Muller-Brockmann, Ruder freely mixed weight, slant, and size changes, even within single lines of type, to achieve a semiotic representation of language. In his 1960 book, “Typography,” Ruder devotes several pages to a discussion of grids, but nowhere near as much space as he devotes to the exposition of type as an image with intrinsic visual qualities that cannot be ignored.”

Ruder eventually influenced students at Basel to explore the deconstruction of grids, whereas occurred a self-realization that he had yet to explore it in depth for himself. “Ruder’s work can be described as a nexus point in codifying those syntactic and semiotic experiments within the framework of the International Style as it was developing at the time. He actively helped assimilate the seeds of grid deconstruction into the rational aesthetic of structural graphic design (as it is today)” (Samara).

Grid-Lock: Expanded Upon

While considering to expand upon the original post of “Grid-Lock,” I decided to choose a few options for a better balanced approach.

Crisitana Couceiro
For a visual example of keen and varied grid design, I chose Portuguese designer and illustrator, Crisitana Couceiro. Couceiro’s work is a stellar example of blending hand made and digital collages while maintaining variety through grid structure and muted tones:

Ellen Lupton
Lupton’s essay, “Deconstruction and Graphic Design” provides a comprehensive theory of deconstruction, considering Jacques Derrida’s introduction in 1967. Lupton parallels the definition of deconstruction in graphic design and academia as, “a mode of questioning through and about the technologies, formal devices, social institutions, and founding metaphors of representation.” While the blog post is tagged in 2009, Lupton clearly references “today, in the mid-90’s.”

Essay Overview
Deconstruction of: Jacques Derrida’s theory, Katherine McCoy (Cranbrook) in the early ’80’s and post-structuralism, architecture (Gehry, Libeskind, Eisenman), Phillip Meggs, Jan Tschichold’s 1934 manifesto, phonetics, Robin Kinross’s Modern Typography and the history of the newspaper and dictionary design (grid).

Lupton, Ellen. “Deconstruction and Graphic Design. Ellen Lupton. Web. Oct. 2009. Accessed: 25 Feb. 2012.

Grid Designer 2
For an interactive and functional example, I found the “Grid Designer 2” site absolutely unreal. The HTML-based site offers a three-step solution for creating your own grid based upon: Step 1. Columns (creating and adjusting a grid with HTML fields and drop down menus), Step 2. Typography (testing font style, size, height, leading and alignment in each column) and Step 3. Export (exporting a CSS script of your customized entries).

Works Cited:

Armstrong, Helen. “Graphic Design Theory, Readings From the Field.” Princeton Architectural Press. 2009. Pages 9-15.

Bringhurst, Robert. “The Elements of Typographic Style.” Hartley & Marks. 2005.

Samara, Timothy. “Making and Breaking the Grid.” Rockport Publishers. 2005.