Design­ing within a grid sys­tem involves defin­ing the mate­r­ial you are going to work with, defin­ing the page size, mak­ing a pro­por­tional grid onto the space and then fit­ting your design into the grid. Hav­ing a good grid sys­tem will speed up the work process so it’s always wise to spend a lit­tle time on the grid first.


Grid sys­tems can be based on known pro­por­tions like the Golden Rule, Rule of Thirds or pro­por­tions based on stan­dard paper sizes. But in the end most of the grids are based on the design­ers feel­ing for good look­ing page which is then made stronger by using known rules for mak­ing the grids.

A few arti­cles have been pub­lished lately on grid sys­tems on var­i­ous blogs. Most of it is on grid sys­tems for web sites, much less on paper based design. And some fan­tas­tic books have been writ­ten on the sub­ject. Same rules more and less apply, whether you are design­ing for paper or web.

If you are new to this sub­ject you might want to start by reading:

… a great set of arti­cles by Mark Boul­ton, called Five sim­ple steps to design­ing grid sys­tems. Great read for novice and every­one else.

… a great selec­tion of arti­cles on design­ing with grids, old and new on Smash­ing Magazine

… every­thing on The Grid Sys­tem, one of the major source on grid sys­tems lately. Check out the sec­tion of the free grid tem­plates. You can down­load the tem­plates and inves­ti­gate them. Be sure to read the expla­na­tion text that comes with the tem­plates. It will give you some insight into the mech­a­nism behind each grid.

… buy and read Grid sys­tems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller–Brockmann. One of the best books on the subject.

… finally, down­load and read the great book­let called The Vignelli Canon by Mas­simo Vignelli.

There are many other sources that come to mind but we’ll start with these.

InDe­sign, as a page lay­out pro­gram has some great tools to accom­pany a grid sys­tem, some that Illus­tra­tor is lack­ing. Like the Base­line Grid. Both appli­ca­tions have a Doc­u­ment Grid, a gray net of lines to snap text and object to. But here is a lim­i­ta­tion in the Doc­u­ment Grid in Illus­tra­tor. It only allows you to set it for even sided squares, while InDe­sign lets you set dif­fer­ent mea­sure­ments for hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal lines.


On the other hand Adobe Illus­tra­tor which is a one-page pro­gram (although CS4 has mul­ti­ple art­boards) has some other tools that are just as great in its own way, tools that can really speed up the mak­ing of the grids. I want to show you some of the tools here.

Let us start by mak­ing an A4 page in Illus­tra­tor. We want to make a grid what has three columns and is divided into six rows.

We have in mind to use 10,5 pt type on a 12 pt lead­ing. This is just an exam­ple and after you fin­ish mak­ing this grid you can make what ever bet­ter suits your taste. Actu­ally the 10,5 pt type does not play any role in this grid mak­ing but our main focus is on the lead­ing. In this exam­ple we’ll use the 12 pt lead­ing as a basis for the grid but we have to do some adjust­ments to that num­ber as you will see.

Have Rulers turned on, Cmd+R. Have your mea­sure­ments set to mil­lime­ters. You can change to it by right-clicking on the Ruler and choose mil­lime­ters from the list that appears.

To start with we will make a box on the page. Select the Rec­tan­gle Tool, Cmd+M. In CS4 it’s easy to find the cen­ter of the page if you have the Smart Guides turned on, Cmd+U. Find the cen­ter and hold down the Option key and click once to get the dia­log box. Hold a sec there.

Type in the mea­sure­ments of the page, width 210 mm and 297 mm for the height. But hold again on a sec­ond. Behind both of the mea­sure­ments type: –24 pt. This is a trick every­one should know and use. In all the Cre­ative Suite you can do a math in any input field. And you are not bound to the mea­sure­ments of your doc­u­ment. Like here we take for instance the width and sub­tract –24 pts from 210 mm. The Width line will read: 210 mm — 24 pt. The num­bers are instantly con­verted to millimeters.

airectangularbox What we are mak­ing here is a 12 pt frame, mar­gin around the page. We need it on both sides and top and bot­tom, so we use –24 points for the subtraction.

Click OK and we have a new rec­tan­gu­lar which is 12 points smaller than the page on all sides. I choose to change the color of the box to light gray, Black 20%.



In the Trans­form Panel we can see what the mea­sure­ments of this rec­tan­gu­lar is and we need to use it for a lit­tle adjust­ment. We planned to use 12 pt lead­ing but it’s not sure it will fit the box exactly. You may be used in InDe­sign to just let the text box go a lit­tle bit fur­ther or less down so the text fits, but lets make this more precise.

aitransformtypesize We do it in few steps. First, con­vert 12 points to mil­lime­ters. It’s easy to do with the Rec­tan­gu­lar Tool. Make a rec­tan­gu­lar, like you just did to make the big box and type in the width and height: 12 pt. The result, 4,233 mm shows instantly in the Trans­form Panel. Write it down or type some­where out­side of the artboard.

Take the height of the box, 288,533 mm and divide it with 4,244 mm. This gives us how many lines of text would fit into the box, 68,1628 lines. Here we have a prob­lem. There is no way for us to use 68 lines for 6 rows. It just doesn’t fit. We will have to find the clos­est num­ber that will divide into six even parts. In our case that num­ber is 66 — 11 lines for each row. When we are mak­ing grids we always use one less, that is, 66 –1= 65. So 65 is the key num­ber here.

Now, take the height of the box again, 288,533 mm and divide with 65 lines and we have our new lead­ing that we are going to use, 4,439 mm which trans­lates to 12,5829 points. Keep that num­ber handy.

For those who are use to using points rather than mil­lime­ters you can skip all this mil­lime­ter stuff. You can have the mea­sure­ments in points all the time. Just type in 210 mm and 297 mm in the mea­sure­ments when you make the page at first and for the divid­ing here above you can divide 12 pt into 817,89 pts and then divide 817,89 pts / 65 lines and you’ll get the same result, 12.58 points leading.

At last we get­ting closer to even more fun. Select the gray text box. Go to: Object > Path > Split Into Grid…



(Notice that because I use this menu selec­tion so fre­quently I have set a key­board short­cut for it, Shift + Option + Com­mand + G. To add it you go to Edit > Key­board Short­cuts… and add it there.)



This is what appears in the dia­log box. Our box is only one row and one col­umn at the moment and we have under Total the cur­rent mea­sure­ment of the box. Be sure to check the Pre­view check box, but leave Add Guides off for the moment. You might want to move this dia­log box a bit to the side to get a bet­ter overview of what is going to happen.

Fill in for the Rows Num­ber: 6 and Columns Num­ber: 3. Instantly the other input fields will be acti­vated. Notice that both the Gut­ters have 4,23 mm in them. This is a pre­set that we are about to change. In both those fields type: 4,439 mm or 12,5829. Also notice that Illus­tra­tor will round type/leading sizes. 4,439 will be rounded to 4,44 and 12,5829 is rounded to 12,58. Hit the OK button.



But what about the Add Guides check box? We are just about to get there. First we need to select all the gray boxes and Group them together, Cmd+G. This side step is just to make it eas­ier later to grab them all together later because the guides we are about to make will be on top of all sides.

Select all the boxes now and be sure noth­ing else is selected. Go to Split Into Guides… again and you’ll see that all the mea­sure­ments are still there and if we needed to make adjust­ments the group will take it. This time check the Add Guides check­box and click OK.



Next thing to do is to change the size of these guides to fit the page area and then change them into real Illus­tra­tor Guides.

referencepoint Keep the Trans­form Panel open and make sure the Ref­er­ence point in the panel is set to cen­ter. Make a New Layer and name it Guides. Select the guides and move them to that layer.

Using the Direct Selec­tion tool, the white arrow, hold­ing down the Option key, select the ver­ti­cal guides only by drag­ging over the top ends of the guides. We have to do it this way because the guides are grouped together.

When they are selected, type in the Trans­form Panel the height of the page: 297 mm and the guides will be short­ened into the art­board. Make the guides into Illus­tra­tor guides, View > Guides > Make Guides, Cmd+5. Do the same with the hor­i­zon­tal guides using 210 mm for the width and turn them also into guides.



When you make your next grid, after this tuto­r­ial you might con­sider if it suits you bet­ter to keep the lines in their green color and not to make them into Illus­tra­tor guides, but at least you should move them into their own Layer.

Now that we have our guides on one layer and the gray boxes on Layer 1 we can throw away the boxes. Or, as I pre­fer, to move the boxes to their own sep­a­rate layer in case I need to use them for recal­cu­lat­ing later. This is a great time to tell you a lit­tle trick that you might not know. And since we are at it let’s make two layer because we will need it later.


layerspanel First, lock the Guides layer. Then with Option key held down, click the New Layer icon in the Lay­ers Panel. This forces a dia­log box to show up and you can name that layer right away. Much more con­ve­nient than renam­ing it later on and it’s a good habit too if you want to keep your work orga­nized. This short­cut is avail­able in InDe­sign and Pho­to­shop too. The sec­ond trick is to add the Com­mand key, use Option + Com­mand at the same time and click the New Layer icon. This will open up the dia­log box and put the new layer below the one who is selected. Had to tell you.

Make this way two new lay­ers called Boxes and Base­line. For the moment we’ll select the gray boxes and move them over to the Boxes layer and click the eye icon to hide the content.



Mov­ing on, we need to make the Base­lines for the text. If you think of a way to make 65 lines evenly dis­trib­uted you know there are sev­eral ways to do this. You could use the Blend Tool or you could use Object > Move one line down 4,44 mm and then dupli­cate sixty some­thing times with the Cmd+D.

The best by far way is how­ever to use Effects > Dis­tort & Trans­form > Trans­form… We’ll use it here. If you didn’t know that tool it’s about time now.

Before we go into that tool, select the Base­line layer. We have to make one line that sits on the top of the grid and we want it to be drawn into the Base­line layer. Be sure to have it with col­ored stroke and no fill. Red is an ideal color here.



While the new red base­line is selected we go into Effects > Dis­tort & Trans­form > Trans­form… As you see, I have also made myself a key­board short­cut here, Option + Cmd + U.



When the dia­log box opens we can fill in the impor­tant num­bers. First we check the Pre­view check­box. Then the num­ber of lines we want to dupli­cate and finally the direc­tion of the copy­ing and the dis­tance between the lines, ver­ti­cal –4,44 which is mil­lime­ters or you can type in –12,58 pt if you rather want to use points. Either one works fine as you can imme­di­ately see. Click OK.



When you zoom back you’ll see that only one line is selected. That is how it works with Effects. In the Appear­ance Panel you’ll see that the line has an fx or Effect to it. If you need to go back in, click the Trans­form word in the Appear­ance Panel. Do not go again via the menu because you will then apply a new effect on the line.

When you are sure all is right you can select the line again and then go into Object > Expand Appear­ance and you’ll get your 65 lines as nor­mal lines, grouped, and you also have them already on a sep­a­rate layer for your convenience.



If you man­aged to get all the way to here: Con­grat­u­la­tions. You have made a grid for Illus­tra­tor in a brand new way and most likely learned a few Illus­tra­tor tricks along the way. I hope this gives you a basic under­stand­ing of how to cal­cu­late the cor­rect lead­ing to fit into grids. There are of course many more ways to do this but I hope you will like this method.

I am writ­ing more about grids and grid mak­ing in Illus­tra­tor and will post it soon. Can’t wait myself.