Grid Layout Design: History, Tips and Five Best Examples

Mariia Kasymova

What is design if not a process of turning chaos into order? From this perspective, grids serve as the main tool for graphic and user interface designers. Grids help designers to place and align design elements on the page, in other words, create a certain order.

Eleken designers create digital products and use grids to make the design process faster and more efficient. In this article, we would like to share a few tips and the best examples of grid layout design.  

What is a grid layout design?

Image credit: Hrvoje Grubisic on Dribble

First off, let’s define the term “grids”. Grid is a structure of columns and lines that helps to design a website, app, or print project. Grid determines where the block of text and other design components sit on the page. Every grid despite its size or type consists of three main elements: columns, gutters, and margins. Grid layout design is the design that relies on the grids.

Graphic and web-designers work in the dimension that can be broken down to the rectangle, be it a page or a screen. This determines the shape of the grid as well. The lines within the grid are customized. Creators can build the grid themselves or rely on ready grid systems, while designers can use the same grid system throughout the whole piece of design, or create a new grid for each page to express their ideas.

Main elements of the grid: columns (1), gutters (2), margins (3)
Image credit: Material.io

Grid is an essential element of UI and graphic design that allows dividing the web page into specific, predictable areas. Grids might be invisible but they are everywhere. Practically every user interface you see is built with the help of grids.

History of the grid

We can trace the idea of the grid layout design down to the ancient times when the first books were handwritten. But with time grid importance evolved dramatically and went from unconscious aligning to carefully measured grid systems. 

Grids became essential after the printing press was invented. Early prints repeated the handwritten books’ design, but the printing press made alignments even more clear-cut. A good example here is the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first printed artifacts where we can easily see a two-column grid.

Gutenberg Bible, 1455. One of the first printed artifacts
Image credit: JMWK on Flickr

In the 19th century, the majority of newspapers adopted a grid-like format that would continue to be refined over the years. It has laid the groundwork for the more complex and efficient modular grids used today.

New York Times, April 15, 1865
Image credit: Times Machine by The New York Times

By the end of the 19th century grids remained straightforward and simple. But in the 20th century grid layout was influenced by the big design movements of the time like Bauhaus and De Stijl. Grid designs became much more interesting involving round grids and brave braking of the grid.

Bauhaus-inspired grid
Image credit:  helena-b on Redbubble

As we can see, grids are not some sort of a trend coming by occasionally, buta powerful design tool that has been constantly developing as the time goes. Now, let’s go back to our times and see how designers use grids nowadays to create digital products.

Types of grids

There are four main types of grids in design. They are manuscript, column, modular and hierarchical grids.

Main types of grids

Manuscript grids. The simplest grid, where text is placed in one column, like on the book page. 

Column grids. The most common type of grid used by graphical and web designers. Basically, it’s a number of columns that help place and align text and other design elements.

Modular grids consist of columns and rows creating “modules”.
Hierarchical grids are any irregular grids. This type of grid is the most flexible to content needs. It can be composed of two different kinds of grids brought together, or even be free-form.

We can also name the baseline grid - a grid of horizontal lines like a school copybook. Or a pixel grid used mostly for digital screens - a grid of multiple rows and columns creating a pixel net.

These different kinds of grids are used in both print and web design.

Five inspiring grid layout design examples 

For you to get some inspiring grid layout ideas and better understand how important it is to use a grid in UI design, we have collected some great examples to show you.

Perfect alignment. It’s the essential function of grids to align design elements. Its role in user interface designs can’t be underestimated. Pay attention to how the landing page grid below makes use of empty white space and keeps the other elements perfectly aligned.

Image credit: Andrea Jelić on Dribble

Complexity reduced. The grid can help to minimize the complexity of SaaS products. The neat structure of grid-based design helps to organize the data. For example, Eleken designers have created a neat grid-based design for TextMagic customer experience platform.

TextMagic interface made by Eleken

Go diagonal. We mostly imagine grids as coordinate systems. But they can be used to create diagonal designs that look fresh and interesting, just like the landing page below - looks more like a contemporary artwork, doesn't it? 

Image credit: Hrvoje Grubisic on Dribble

Grid breakers. You can use a grid to… break out of a grid. Grid is good not only for aligning design elements, but can also help designers create the effect of movement and make the design much more interesting. Take a look at the example below of how vertical scrolling can help to break out of the horizontal and vertical grids.  

Image credit: Typography Principles

Animation. The symmetrical patterns of the grids match perfectly with animated effects. It is a great way to make the grid layout more vivid and eye-catching. Here’s an idea how grid approach can be combined with animation.

Image credit: Jekin Gala on Dribble

When you’d like to see more examples of grid-based design, check out our article about Angular Material design layout.

Five useful tips for working with grids 

  • Keep in mind the screen size. In responsive design, it is important to be able to adjust your grids to different screen sizes. For example, the number of columns in the grid is different for mobile, tablet, and desktop screens. Usually, it is four columns for mobile, an eight-column grid for tablet, and twelve columns for desktop.

  • Gutters matter. The screen size also determines the size of the gutters. Smaller gutters look better on mobile screens and for web screens, you can use a little more space between columns. Avoid big gaps in modular grids.
Too big gutters in modular grid layout are rather a bad idea
Image credit: Material.io
  • Go horizontal. You can use the grid to scroll horizontally. In the horizontal grid, layout columns are placed from left to right, and design elements scroll the opposite way.
Image credit: Vivien Cseresznyés on Dribble
  • Design the grid. You can design your own grid and work with it. Mix several grids at the same time, or, in other words, play with the hierarchical grid. Adjust the height and width of the columns, change margins and sizes of the gutters to create the grid that will meet your needs.
      
  • Don’t let the grid limit you. Don’t think of the grid as of limits. Rather approach it as a certain logic that will help you bring design elements to order within the page. And don’t be afraid to break out of the grid. 

Can you build a UI without grids?

Grids in UI design are more important than ever. Digital products require symmetry and perfect alignment. It’s part of a smooth user experience. However, it is not mandatory to use grids. You can work without a grid for sure, it will just take more time and effort to align the blocks of text and images within the web page.

If you feel like the grid is killing creativity and gets you on track with the same old patterns, you can surely try working without raws and columns. But we recommend customizing the grid and using it to enhance your ideas.

Image credit: Zhenya Rynzhuk on Dribble

Conclusion

Grid is a system of columns and rows that helps to organize and align elements in the visual design. We at Eleken use grids to create page layouts, user interface designs, or graphic designs. Using a grid in UI design makes the process much more effortless and simple.

The grid layout is becoming more and more important with the growth of responsive design. The reason for it is that grids facilitate multi-device support and reduce complexity. Designing on the grid allows you to bring the visual hierarchy to the page and gives your content a clear structure and makes it readable. As a result, your users will navigate better through well-structured pages of your digital product.

If you find this topic interesting and want to explore it more, you can also read our article on design systems. And when you want to know how the grid can help to design your product specifically, don’t hesitate to reach out to us


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