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Thinking Like A Book Designer

Lesson 3 of 15

How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

Thinking Like A Book Designer

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

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Lesson Info

3. How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

Lesson Info

How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

So now, here's where we get into the nuts and bolts a little bit. We wanna talk about the grid. Now, the grid is something you may love or hate, but it is a reality. It is to design what the grammar and conjugation of verbs is to learning a language. It is the foundation of any structure. And before you start to think of it as a straitjacket or something that actually is restrictive, what we wanna talk about is how as an infrastructure it allows for supreme exploration and expansiveness in your work as a designer. So, we're gonna show you a bunch of things, and also point you to resources that are greater and deeper than our own, that are very accessible to you because they're online. But first... So, my career began years and years ago, working for a designer named Massimo Vignelli. Massimo was famous. He could not design a business card, a 3 1/2 by two inch business card, without a grid. He really believed that if you had a geometric grid underline your way out, it ensured the prop...

er relationship of all the elements you would put on it. Interestingly, I thing he's very different from someone like Brodovitch, someone like Milton Glaser, or Seymour Chwast, who achieved consistency and kind of delight in their layout through another means. Mossimo, I think was trained as an architect, kind of, sort of like, saw the pages of a book the way an architect would see the walls of a building. You know, you need to put a framework up first. The windows have to line up, you know, all the plumbing has to line up, or else the building doesn't work. It falls down, right? And he sort of, had that same sense that the support system that enabled understanding of text and pictures was as important as a foundation and framework is for a building. He passed away a couple years ago. Before he died, he had such an unusual and special way of designing books. And I worked with him for 10 years, and I saw him design books for 10 years. I asked him if we could interview him and have him talk through the design of a book, then he was gracious enough to give us a bunch of his sketches, along with the finished book. And we sort of, put together a little illustration that we'll show in two parts, of how you kind of, take a grid, sketches, that raw material of the words and the pictures, and then turn them into a finished book in the end. {Massimo Vignelli] My name is Massimo Vignelli, and I'm a designer. And of course, one of the things that I design most of the time is books. (gentle music) Now the way I do books is I will devise a grid. We put a blank piece of paper over the grid. I can see the grid through the paper, and I will determine the position of the photograph. If you do a double page spread, it's wow. It is a big thing. Or you can have several pictures a page, or you can have one full page on one side, and a little picture on the opposite side, and positioned in such a way that the white space make a reverence around that picture. So you'll see later on how those books, how his work turns into those books. But, what he would do is he would do, is he would sit with... Is draw. Yeah, he would sit with So great. the author of the book, and he'd have the text, and he'd have like, a box of pictures, and he would draw each, he positioned each one of those photographs, size and position them by drawing in with a pencil where he wanted them to go on the page. And it was just as a way of kind of, getting to feel the subject matter... And also, set major, important commercial break shout out to the beauty and importance of tracing paper. Yeah. (audience laughs) It's so good. It's just like, really, this is one thing that is lost from our culture. We need to bring it back. Because when you... He's not inventing that building, he's drawing that building on top of the sketch, and in the drawing of it, you learn that the thing that's actually registering is the vertical column structure, and maybe that gives you a cue to how you wanna handle the type. It's a really amazing thing he did. So, grids. The beauty of the grid is that it comes from something extremely historic, and classic, and important, which is the platonic ideal. It's the Fibonacci series, it's the golden section, and serious book designers will actually draw these things. They will draw these diagrams to understand what the ideal proportion is of the text block, we call it text block, on the page. Paul Rand used to say, it comes up in a later quote, you must first learn the rules, and then learn to break them in an interesting way. But it's really helpful to look at these diagrams and understand the degree to which they are a really wonderful place to start. You can see that this grid is very different from Muller-Brockmann's grid there. So it's not like there's one way to do this. I don't think any of these designers would claim that they had a key that could open every single door. Each one of the grids you create for a book is always best done in relationship to the subject matter at hand. And it doesn't help if you do a gird that really works great with vertical photographs, portrait format photographs, if most of the photographs are landscape, right? It doesn't help if you sort of, are designing a really, you know, a grid with really huge modules if you're gonna have pages that have to resolve, you know, two dozen images in one. You really have to fit those things to suit the subject matter, which is why if you have a hundred different books, they may have a hundred different premises in terms of, you know, how wide the margins are, how many units are vertical and horizontal in a grid. And each one of them, when they're beautifully done, is, that proportion is derived, not just from some abstract idea, but from the actual subject matter at hand. It comes out of the subject matter, it comes out of the nature of the photographs, as you saw, and you'll see again in the second half of the Massimo film. It also comes out of the typeface. And there's a very interesting series of ways one can go about looking at choosing letter forms, and understanding how the actual structure of the letter forms themselves led you to a grid. You're looking at what's called the x-height, at the ascenders, and the descenders, and the spacing, and how you can actually grow the grid from the letter forms itself. And that's very much, I think, a Josef Muller-Brockmann concept. Now, I'm going to do a little shout out to our pal, Ellen Lupton here, who is the diva of all things grid, and graphic design. She's written the most important, wonderful book, called Thinking With Type. It's now in its second or third printing, and given the fact that she is also the curator for design at the Cooper-Hewitt, she's an extremely open source, open minded person. The entire book is online. All the exercises, all the explanations about how grids are formulated, and implemented, and extended over time. So rather than go into an explanation which would be a paltry failure, compared to what Ellie can do, we're just gonna show you these wonderful diagrams that she's done that explain actually how alignments work, how columns work, how spacing works, how you actually manage the complexity of something that incorporates sameness and difference. Her book is called Thinking With Type. The website is Thinking With Type. Run, don't walk, to that website if this is where you wanna go next with your book design, 'cause she's really a wonderful, wonderful scholar, and practitioner. There are many other useful resources. One of the ones we wanted to talk about for a few minutes in depth are the books that exist, many of them explain how grids are used. Lucien Roberts who's a British designer in London, came out with a book in 2005 called, The Designer and the Grid. Timothy Samara, who was a diner, I think in Boston, Yeah. wrote a book on the grid. The book on the left is probably the Bible. It first came out, I think, in the 60s. Yeah, 68. In the late... 68. Yeah. Josef Muller-Brockmann was a German graphic designer... Swiss? Swiss. Swiss graphic designer who is the grandfather of the grid. The book was out of print for many years. It's now back in print. And in addition to being a designer of books, he also designs some unbelievable posters and I don't know if Creative Live has a six hour course on Swiss design, but they should because this is, this is eye candy raised to an exponent that you can't even begin. But we wanna show some examples of this, and so, he was also a poster designer. So, if you look at what can be done with a grid, these are examples of large scale posters, each of which are not done willy-nilly, based on the fact that he liked these colors and these typefaces. So I'm certain that that factored into it. Now knowing a little bit what we've described in the last few minutes, I think you can see that the opportunities for alignment, and engagement, and white space, and composition, and information, and color; all of them work because at the core there is this armature that works, which is good. Yeah, I think this is a great example of how grids can be used in a way that is obvious, and sort of submerged deep underneath the subject matter. You know, if you look at the first one on the left, and the one on the far right; both of those posters, you can really see, you know, here there are seven columns, right? You can count 'em, you can sort of see how that's organized. You know, half way up, half way down. But you look at the one in the middle, there's a grid there too. But the placement of those words is just so free and fresh, and lively, and with the addition of color, with the addition of composition, you really sort of, see it come to life in a musical sort of way. And Muller-Brockmann was just a master of that. A very kind of, poetic designer, who always had this rigor underneath. And we're gonna talk about music in a moment, right after this live actually. But one of the things that I wanna point out is that you can tell when you look at that poster on the left, the blue one, it's an eight column grid, one, one, two, I think it's an eight column grid. Sometimes, the more numbers of grids columns you give gives you more flexibility. Because they don't, of course, all have to exist that way. You can do, you know, four, four, and two, and five and three, and particularly for anyone working in a newspaper or a magazine, it is often true that the more columns give you more flexibility. And I would even go out on a limb and say, Paul Rand would certainly say this, an uneven number of columns gives you more advantages than an even number of columns. He had great beliefs in the fact that a symmetry was an important ingredient in graphic design, and particularly in book design, and in his view, and this is actually kind of an interesting point, he said, he used to say, five is better than four, three is better than two. Which immediately reminded me of that Linus and Lucy cartoon, where she says, when he's going to school, now remember, when you go to algebra, x is always three, and y is always four. (laughs) But it wasn't quite that didactic. He really believed that asymmetry was the key to a great deal of opportunity in graphic design. And in his belief, the reason why was that they eye works harder to resolve asymmetric relations in the brain, than through symmetry, and therefore the takeaway is you remember more. You work harder, and so this sense of reward for you as the viewer is actually greater. Now (mumbles) is funny. It's like, sometimes I wonder whether or not there are actually, whether those rules are real, or whether those rules are just kind of invented because you like the asymmetry of, you know, someone just likes asymmetry, likes odd numbers, and then comes up with theory why odd numbers are superior in a way. 'Cause I look at this, I look at these Muller-Brockmann things, just like way back when, and that learning from Las Vegas, where we had that narrow column down the side, and I look at these narrow columns that are all hanging like rain from that type above there. Later on today, I'll show you a book that I designed that just has so many narrow columns on it, and it's only there 'cause I just love the way they look, and I love the way they fit on a page. I can't come up with a single justification for it. It required so much hyphenation and word breaking, and they're actually kind of like, very impractical, but I just love those. That's great, cause I'm gonna talk about a book later that has no hyphenation. No hyphenation. Yeah, so. So you're gonna see, we're gonna go to war after lunch. Yeah. Okay. Okay, so, (mumbles), an amazing designer, also big, great, Swiss believer of the grid, made these posters based on... So if you look at the grid on the upper left, it looks pretty straightforward; it's graph paper. It's a line, there's not a lot of asymmetry. And from those grid studies, he devised these posters, and these posters actually have to do with time and space, and theatricality, and musicality, and... And the idea that you can take something so basic and turn it into something so dynamic is, I think, a great testimony, and kind of, plug for why the grid is your friend. But it's not everything. And Muller-Brockmann himself, said, it's an aid, not a guarantee. So sometimes students, young students, will come to me and say, it's a straight jacket. What if I don't wanna do that? What if I wanna move this here? And that's again, this idea that you start with something, but you break the rules. You may not break all the rules, but you need to start with something. It is a place to... When you have that blank page, that blank book, that blank poster, it is a place to start. The second half of that little Vignelli interview, sort of shows what the book ended up looking like after he had the full layout done. And you'll sort of, if you remember the sketches he did earlier, he talks about how they were transformed into a final book, and his own metaphor for what a book designer is. And how he worked with photographs. And also, let us not miss the beautiful Italian accent. Yeah. [Massimo Vignelli] In the case of books with illustration, every page has to be designed. Therefore, the scale of the images, and the pacing of the images is what makes the book. It's just like a film, in a sense, you know. There is a script writer that is the author of the book, and I'm, at the same time, the director, and cinematographer this has. And that is why I enjoy the book, and this is why I can't have credit on the title page because the book is mine. (audience laughs) Yeah, so, it's being the director and the cinematographer, and the producer. And I think one of the things that we find as designers is, even though the author thinks he or she is the author, the publisher is the person putting up the money, and hoping to make money from making and selling the book. As designers, we're often the ones who actually, are the last people to touch it before it becomes real. You know, the author has worked on it for months, or sometimes years, but it comes in our hands, and it's our real responsibility to deliver that object to the world, and to make the ideas that the author had manifest. And so, they won't always put your name on the title page, but your presence is always going to be felt, one way or the other.

Class Description

Print is not dead, and in this class you’ll learn about the elements that go into designing a book. Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut are renowned designers and experts in the field of design, and in this class you have the chance to learn from their years of expertise! If you’re interested in designing a book, personally or professionally, this class will teach you what you need to get started, including:

Lesson 1: The History of Book design

Lesson 2: How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

Lesson 3: Approaches to Art Book Design

Lesson 4: How Book Design Engages and Entertains 

Lesson 5: Approaches to Cover Design for Fiction 

Lesson 6: What Makes a Successful Book Cover

Lesson 7: How to Approach Cover Design for a Series

Lesson 8: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

Lesson 9: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 2

Lesson 10: Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Lesson 11: Methods to Creating your Own Book

Lesson 12: Abbott Miller: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 13: Michael Bierut: Personal Book Project-Case Study

Lesson 14: Jessica Helfand: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 15: Best Practices in Book Design

Jessica and Michael also share a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with seasoned designers working at the publishing giant Random House and award-winning design studio Pentagram. This class provides a full- bodied robust understanding of all the things that go into being a book designer, a classic tenet to anyone who makes things in the world. 

Class Materials

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Approaches and Elements of Magazine Design - HD (1.4 GB)

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Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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Leonie Holzman

I had an opportunity to be in the live studio audience for Thinking Like a Book Designer. The session was rich with content, taking us through the whole process of what goes into designing a book as well as interviewing top book designers in the field. I also appreciated the lively exchange between the presenters Jessica Heifand and Michael Bierut. As someone who over the years got burned out as a graphic designer, feeling more like a machine than a designer often times, it reminded me of why I was drawn to become a graphic deisgner in the first place.

Sonny Pham

I had an opportunity to attend this amazing workshop by Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. I was gained information about the history of book design, the do's and don'ts, and even insight on the industry itself. It was a surreal experience! My favorite part of the lesson has to be when Jessica and Michael interviewed other artists about their books, with an very in depth analysis on their design choices and process. After seeing Michael explain his design process for his book, I bought it after the class was done. Definitely worth the money for the lesson, and will be back for more!

Anna Pankin

Very engaging and informative class! My only 2 recommendations for the creators (if they read the comments) would be to add a pdf file of the presentation available to download (since it has all the references and visual examples) and, as someone below already mentioned, it would have been nice to actually see the magazine and book pages close-up just as they were being discussed in the videos. But overall I loved the course and the lecturers, who are a true inspiration.