Customer Reviews: Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type (Design Briefs)
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on June 15, 2005
You may at first be tempted to buy this book for one or more of the following reasons:

(a) if you leaf quickly through it, you'll see lots of grid thumbnails, which may give you the impression that a range of different grid possibilities is carefully explored and explained;

(b) you'll also find several design pieces (pictures of posters, ads etc) with transparent overlays containing grids, suggesting that each piece is carefully analysed and explained;

(c) it's published by Princeton Architectural Press, so hey, it must be good.

Unfortunately, if you do buy the book for one of the reasons above, you're in for a lot of disappointment.

You'll find that the actual text is like a series of quick notes such as what you'd expect to see in a slide show, except that there's no speaker or presenter to give you the actual explanations and help you make sense out of all the images. In other words, you'll be confronted with a few bits of text that don't really teach you much besides a few (very few) basic concepts and which don't even properly explain the images. (And if you really believe that an image is worth a thousand words, good luck deciphering the message.)

Most pictures of ads and such are accompanied by transparent overlays; some of these contain lots of lines, circles and crosshairs. You'd think there's an explanation somewhere as to what all the lines, crosshairs and whatnot mean, but that's not the case.

Take the Nike ad on pages 64-5, for instance. The overlay has a complex grid with four darker areas, and five even darker ones, plus external lines that seem to indicate that some sort of proportion exists (and is therefore going to be explained). But here's ALL the author has to say about the pictures and the overlay:

"These are pages from a catalog of seasonal products for outdoor-industry professionals and athletes. The typography appears on the vertical in a band that spans the spread. The band is punctuated by solid vertical rules that change color and reverse out the product name. The descriptive text follows the vertical rule, with size and pricing information in bold. The rules and text have the option to flow across the gutter from the left page onto the right page. The images float in between bands of text and vignettes".

That's it. The text above appears before any of the pictures and is in no way visually connected to the overlay. You'll end up guessing what some of the lines in the overlay refer to, but will be left to wonder what most of the others mean.

And that's not all: all the grids [briefly] explained by the author are square, divided into three equal horizontal and vertical sections. However, most of the design pieces presented in the book are rectangular, and not one of them is divided in the familiar 3×3 grid. There's no explanation anywhere as to how the transition from square to rectangles can or should be made, and there's no information as to how the 3×3 grids relate to the 4×4, 4×6 etc grids you'll find on the overlays.

The first overlay (page 35) is presented right after the first series of 3×3 square grids, but it's a rectangle with no less than 14 horizontal lines, 5 vertical lines, and 2 unequal, overlapping columns (one of the rules that must be followed in the grid exercises is "no overlapping"). There's no introduction to this new logic, no explanation about the proportions; just a bit of history about the 1928 brochure which apparently is a cornerstone of modern design.
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on November 20, 2005
I became aware of how important grids are when I was at art college and came across the first issue of a new design magazine, 'New Graphic Design' in 1958. Published in Switzerland in English, German and French and containing dozens of pictures but without a strict grid all the issues of this stunning publication would look a mess. The grid, put simply is a framework which allows several elements (photos, graphics, text, display type etc) to be placed in a rectangle and all work towards one aim, clarity of presentation. Virtually all publications use a grid (in its simplest form it could be called the type area) check out the page number position in a magazine, always in the same place defined by the grid.

Having used grids for years I'm surprised that there is so much confusion but that was before I read through Kimberley Elam's book. The straightforward becomes the obscure despite the good intentions. The most useful parts are the pages that use a see-through overlay, revealing the essence of the grid and nicely some disasters, too. What could be simpler than the two examples shown on page thirty-eight and nine, Christof Gassner's 1960 redesign of one page of a theater program, from the dull and confusing to something so elegant and simple. What is really interesting about the page is that it is all done with type only. Page forty-five uses another overlay for the contents spread of a book (designed by Drenttel Doyle Partners in 1988) the see-through reveals a simple grid but the actual spread is a complete mess with type everywhere, even the three words 'Table of contents' is letterspaced in two typefaces, roman and sans.

The two examples of the grid I've mentioned perhaps sum up the problems that a reader of this book might have, most of the European grid examples shown use the grid to simplify the placing of all the elements on a page, especially the typography. The American examples show basic grid versions that are virtually ignored when it comes to placing the page elements. This becomes evident in the last pages of the book where thirty-four design thumbnails are shown, one would not know they conform to any grid at all as each example shows a mixture of display type, text setting and graphics in no coherent order, in fact the very opposite of what a grid is supposed to do with these same elements. Perhaps the key element in any publication grid is the size of the text and headline types, because these (especially the text size) remain the same on every page and other elements, photos and graphics, need to be positioned within the grid defined by the typography.

I think 'Grid Systems' is pretty hopeless in explaining the virtues of this essential design format and strangely there is a real dearth of titles about the subject, perhaps it's just a bit too narrow or technical for most graphic art publishers. The great Swiss designer Josef Muller-Brockmann explains it all in his excellent Grid Systems in Graphic Design/Raster Systeme Fur Die Visuele Gestaltung (German Edition) though it's not mentioned in the bibliography of 'Grid Systems' but two of his other books are.

***FOR AN INSIDE LOOK click 'customer images' under the cover.
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on January 4, 2005
One of the fundamental goals of any Graphic Design curriculum is to understand the enigmatic concept of the grid. When I was in design school, we were given an opaque five-minute lecture about the grid, and were then instructed to do an exercise that was supposed to teach us how to use the grid. The entire lesson was confusing, and I never could get a clear answer from an instructor on exactly how to use the grid, and so I was left to fend for myself on that matter.

If only my instructors had been armed with Kimberly Elam's "Grid Systems." Elam has written a well-organized survey of the basics of understanding the grid. The book acts as a course guide, organized into five sections, or exercises. She opens the book with an introductory exercise that explains the grid, proportions, use of ornamental elements, and negative space. The exercises increase in complexity, later covering horizontal, vertical, and diagonal compositions, and finally explaining the many factors that affect hierarchy. Each of the exercises presents several options that fall within the well-considered constraints of the project. Elam systematically exhausts the design possibilities of each project with well-qualified rationale. Peppered throughout the lessons is analysis of more complex and expressive layouts designed by immortals such as Jan Tschichold and Herbert Bayer, as well as work by contemporary design firms. The analysis of each specimen is accompanied with a vellum overlay page that clearly defines the grid and compositional dynamics of the layout.

"Grid Systems" strips the confusion from the mystery of designing with a grid. It teaches constraint while illustrating the unexpected freedom the grid can afford, and will surely become a required textbook in typography classes everywhere.
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on November 29, 2006
Kimberly Elam must be famous enough that a publisher will take her notebooks or scrapbooks and have them typeset without much editing and without giving any real thought to trifling details such as the reader.

This book is just a collection of notes that may make sense to the person who wrote them, but are not very illuminating to someone looking for a methodical approach to the subject -- unless, of course, that someone is telepathic and can read the author's mind.

Save your money.
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on November 14, 2005
Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I suspect the people who gave this book 5 stars are either friends of the author or work for Princeton Press.

The back cover promises a book that "brings the same keen eye and clear explanations to bear on the most prevalent, and maybe the most subtle and least understood, system of visual organization". Well, maybe if you have Kimberly Elam by your side in a classroom walking you through each of the examples in the book, but certainly not if you're trying to make sense of the book on your own.

In fact, there are practically no "clear explanations" in the book. The author mentions a few basic concepts in passing but that's not enough to teach you anything. And a bunch of examples thrown at you without any sort of pedagogic scaffolding does little more than frustrate you.
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on July 30, 2008
Grid Systems had excited me to the point that I went to the store and bought it while my Amazon order was delayed in shipping (t'was never delivered). I tore into it with great delight until I reached about page 20. It was then that I started to notice an abundance of the same types of 'grid example thumbnails' with one-sentence notes. While, in the first half, these are informative, they just become page fillers that speak to the same principals again and again. There are far too many of them. It's clear that this is designed to make the book heavier.

My interest peaked again, though, when I got to Jan Tschichold's 'Die Neue Typographie' layout (as promised on the cover). There was an overlay of vellum with the grid for the piece. "Finally," I thought, "some applied theory!" But no. The overlay shows the grid and a triangle (mystery triangle to me- never explained). The accompanying 7 sentences do little more than to describe the piece and provide a history. This is par for the rest of the real-world examples in the book: A complex overlay with zero supplemental information on it.

This book is well-designed to sell if you flip through it or look at the Look Inside on Amazon because you'll think there are in-depth analysis for historical and popular works based on the grid. But there aren't.

Consider another option.
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on February 7, 2010
(please note: this comment refers to the 2004 edition. perhaps the 2007 update is better ... ).

Overall, I don't really see the relevance of this book given the broad spectrum and range of titles which do a far better and far more comprehensive explanation of the fundamentals of grid/typographic grid systems. The holy grail would have to be "The Typographic Grid / Hans Rudolf Bosshard / Niggli / 2000", barley nudging out the classic "Grid Systems in Graphic Design" / Niggli / 1996 - "i believe this is the latest edition)" by the Swiss master, Mr. Josef Muller-Brockmann.

There is also Allen Hurlburt's concise "The Grid: A Modular System / VNR" or even his "Layout / Watson-Guptill". I would even recommend sticking with this book's immediate predecessor (as Princeton Architectural Press seems to indicate) the excellent "Thinking with Type / Ellen Lupton" or even the sketchy-lo-fi "Editing by Design / Jan White / Allworth Press".

The translucent vellum with grid-in-red overlays almost always over posters are visual gimmicks in this context. You want to learn about grids, look at where they are fundamentally integrated (not an option, as with posters) - you look at books and book typography.
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on March 9, 2006
I agree whole heartedly with "wiredwierd"... the simplicity of presentation and clean design continue to set Ms. Elam's educational strategy above the rest of the publications regarding the use of compositional layout tools such as "THE Grid" (as my students refer to it).

The clear, concise and correctly factual presentation of a few applications that illustrate grid-based compositions lead either students or instructors into the subject, without exhasting the possibilites to the point of boredom; More importantly, the visual examples do not impose the author's view on the teaching methodology of potential teachers. Enough is illustrated to bring about "Eureka" moments, and "real-life" applications by professionals provide an insight into possible creative interpretations.

The visual emphasis is perfect for the target audience, since designers and design educators are inherently visual learners, and since the subject matter deals with the organization of visual information.

The discussion regarding Typographic Hierarchy is much needed and appreciated since it is neglected in modern typography texts...perhaps the movement toward a more contemporary view of typographic compositions in the last few decades has lead most design authors and designers to a parallel universe where they have forgotten that our responsibilty to our clients and to our students (who will eventually serve our former clients) is to teach them to THINK about information and the results of their visual communications.

I highly recommend the miniscule cash investment in this text!
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on January 8, 2015
This book reads more like a college course syllabus/outline, lightly glossing over topics with a little text and a few examples. This is especially true when sections of the book read, "The student explores…," "…the student is inclined to create…," "organized to guide the student…," and so on.

Most of the examples of actual work come from 1960s and 1980s, with a few from the 1920s and 1990s—with a majority being European and foreign language. For the purposes of the book, I do not think it is necessary to focus on the "history" of grids—only how to use grids.

The "student" sections are seriously lacking basic design knowledge. It was difficult to take the author as an authority on the subject of design when text is haphazardly placed on the page. Using the blocks to represent text is perfectly acceptable, but it isn't until the end of the book (Typographic Hierarchy) where any semblance of text placement is touched on. Even then, the information was not legitimate for design basics.

The use of non-objective elements (circles, lines, and other nonsense) throughout the book only solidified the haphazardness of the author's design philosophy. It was a stretch, but there was a brief mention of using such objects as anchor points or leading lines for the eye—but rarely was purposeful to the discussion of grids, as they rarely lined up was any sort of grid.

At the time of purchase, based on other recommendations (supposed authorities on design), I expected this book to touch on grid fundamentals: rule of thirds (glossed over), odds versus evens, gutters, margins, page sizes, golden mean, Fibonacci Sequence, etc. For the most part, it felt as if the author took some page layout, drew lines where some items lined up, then called it a grid—as if it were a purposeful grid system before the designer did the layout. The cover seems to be the closest best example of a proper grid system, but it didn't take into account cover folds and text margins (front cover, main paragraph).
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on January 11, 2008
I am a web designer and a someone who appreciates good print design. A lot of books on CSS (cascading style sheets) try to explain the concept of grids, but these are usually written by people that have a great grasp of the tech side of things, but their writing skills, or ability to relate these concepts are limited.

This book doesn't mention web design (so far as I've read), but she perfectly explains grids.

Lastly, this book is a piece of art. It is pretty. It is stylish. It has semi-transparent overlays in many of the sections allowing one to see a page without grids. This book is special.
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