Using the Grid System in Graphic Design

Keep designs consistent with grids

website design boxes written on white paper with a Sherpie
Bill Oxford / Getty Images

The grid system used in the graphic design process is a way of organizing content on a page. It uses any combination of margins, guides, rows, and columns to form a uniform arrangement. It is most apparent in newspaper and magazine layouts with columns of text and images, though designers use it in many other projects, too. When you learn how to recognize the grid, you'll notice it everywhere in advertising, websites, packaging, and more.

Using Grids in Your Designs

A grid system can be a single grid or a collection of grids. Some are standard to the industry; others are free-form and up to the designer. In a finished product, the grid is invisible, but following it helps to create effective, aesthetically pleasing print and web layouts.

USPS layout guidelines

For example, when designing the back of a postcard, you will use the U.S. Post Office's standard grid. A section of the right side is designated for the address, and the stamp must be in the upper right of this space. You must leave white space along the bottom where the USPS will place their barcode system. This leaves you with a small section on the left for your design and text.

Example of a Grid in Page Layout
The grid units are where you place text and graphics. Margins, alleys, and gutters are usually blank space within the grid. Jacci Howard Bear

Websites and brochures typically follow a few standard grid systems that form the basis for templates. One of the most popular for both projects is the header and three-column layout. It is very familiar to the viewer and can be an easy way to get a jumpstart on your design.

CSS Grid Layout - grid columns and grid rows
Jeremy Girard

When designing websites or multi-page print material, consider keeping a collection of grids to work with. Each grid in a given design should be related, but they can be different. This allows you to adapt the information for one page into a more suitable layout without compromising the consistent look and feel a great design requires. ​

Types of Grids

Grid layouts are as varied as the publications, sites, and items they govern. Common types include equally sized two-, three-, and four-column grids with a header across the top, as well as full-page grids of squares.

From these building blocks, the variations of column widths, borders, page sizes, and other features create unique page designs. When starting a project or even just practicing, try using a grid system to help position the elements of your design on the page.

Show > Grid in Photoshop CS6

Most graphic design apps and programs offer the option to use grid overlays as guides for content placement.

Breaking Out of the Grid

Once the grid is established, it is up to the designer as to when and how to break out of it. This doesn't mean ignoring the grid; rather, elements might cross over from column to column, extend to the end of the page, or extend onto adjacent pages.

In fact, starting with a grid and then breaking out of it can lead to interesting page designs. This is a common approach in modern magazine design.