Page Layout Design
In this tutorial, we’ll explore the design phase of document creation. With the grid as our layout guide, we’ll look at the various ways that elements—text, images, graphic objects, and so on—can work together to produce effective layouts.
The grid provides a structured framework for a layout, but it should not limit design or stifle creativity. Rather than forcing you to work rigidly within its confines, the grid layout should work for you, allowing you to dictate the look and feel of your publication. We’re confident you’ll never look back!
By the end of this tutorial you will be able to:
Understand how basic grid structures are used for page layout.
Use asymmetrical grids to add interest to your design.
Work with margins, row and column gaps.
Understand how to use mixed grids.
Choose the right grid for your publication and break out of the grid to enhance your design!
Grid structures are vital to successful document design, and especially so for documents containing a mixture of text and graphics. If you don’t believe us, examine a few of those magazines in your doctor’s waiting room. Whatever the subject matter, and no matter how random the layout appears, the underlying structure will generally be based on a carefully designed grid.
In the following pages, we’ll look at some different grid structures and illustrate various layout options for each. Along the way, we’ll offer tips and suggestions for creating successful grid-based layouts—we’ll even encourage you to break the rules occasionally!
At the end of the tutorial, we’ll provide some guidelines to help you choose the right grid for your particular project.
Let’s start by looking at some basic grid structures.
Two-column grids are mostly used in books, newsletters, or narrow publications where the column width is limited. Although this layout is very simple, you can still achieve variety by allowing some elements—for example, images and headlines—to span both columns on the page.
However, in wide publications, such as magazines or ‘coffee table books,’ the text columns in a two-column grid would generally be too wide for comfortable reading.
These offer more flexibility than two-column grids because text and images can span one, two, or all of the columns. Three-column grids work for most layouts, even wide ones, and are particularly suited to publications that do not require complex arrangement of elements.
An alternative to the three-column grid is the three-row grid. This format is great for laying out narrow documents such as the tri-fold brochure.
If you need to place a variety of elements into your layout—text, images, graphics, and so on—you’ll find that grids with four or more columns offer the most flexibility.
Generally, grids with an uneven number of grid columns work best. Five- and even seven-column grids provide maximum flexibility and also allow for asymmetrical placement of elements, which tends to be more visually appealing than a symmetrical layout.
The examples below illustrate two different ways we can place the same information onto a seven-column grid.
Notice how we have created ‘white space’ by leaving some columns empty. Effective use of white space creates breathing space, especially on a busy page.
4-column grids can be problematic because a single column is often too narrow for comfortable reading or for placing a graphic. Unless you are sure this structure will work for you, you could end up with most layout elements spanning two columns. In this case, the finished layout will appear to be based on two columns rather than four.
One of the most important features of the grid structure is its flexibility. So far, we’ve shown you how to add interest to your pages by leaving a column empty. In this section, we’ll explore this idea further and show you how asymmetrical grids can liven up your layouts.
For instructions on setting up asymmetrical grids, see the Creating Page Layouts tutorial.
Our first example—a basic grid consisting of three equally sized columns—displays text columns and images in a pleasing, but conventional arrangement. Note that some elements span multiple columns (marked in red).
In this example, we’ve dragged our column guides to make three columns of distinctly different sizes. To provide page-to-page consistency throughout our publication, we’ve created a ‘mirrored’ layout.
Notice again that some elements span multiple columns. The narrow column has been used for a pull quote on the left page but on the right page we have intentionally left the narrow centre column blank (marked in red).
Our final example is a very popular asymmetrical layout which makes use of a narrow side column, or ‘sidebar’. This sidebar is not used for main body copy, but instead holds related text (headings, pull quotes, notes, and so on), graphics, or simply white space.
The following list describes some common uses of the sidebar:
To display headings
To emphasize important information or quote.
To hold information that is relevant to the main subject of the body copy, but not part of the main text flow. For example, a note, suggestion, or warning.
To declutter a complex layout by providing white space.
On the left page of our sample layout, below, the sidebar holds an initial adjacent cap and a note box (marked in red). On the right page, the column is intentionally left blank except for a small quote; this balances the spread and creates an open and airy feel that complements the imagery perfectly.
This second example uses the same grid structure to create a very different look and feel. Here, a single text column is flanked by a narrow sidebar and an image. The ample white space allows the images to dominate the page.
Besides choosing the number, width, and arrangement of your columns, there are some other important grid elements that you must consider: page margins, and row and column gaps.
No matter what type of document you’re working on, it’s rare that your page margins will all be of equal width. For example, you may want more space at the top or bottom of each page—for page header or page footer information, page numbers, and so on.
For bound publications, you’ll usually find that the inside margins are considerably wider than the outside margins. This prevents text and images that are placed in the centre of a spread from ‘disappearing’ into the spine.
If your document is to be printed professionally, avoid last-minute problems by discussing margins and gutter widths with your printer before you start creating your layout.
Row and column gaps are the spaces between the rows and columns in a grid structure.
There are no strict rules about the width of these spaces, but if you make them too narrow your text columns will be difficult to read. We suggest that you experiment to find the gap width that works best for your particular layout.
We’ve stressed the importance of using a grid to maintain page-to-page consistency throughout a document. However, if certain pages present information that varies greatly from the rest of the document, don’t try to force them to conform to a structure that doesn’t really suit the purpose. Instead, simply use a different grid for these pages.
In our example, the main pages are based on an asymmetrical three-column grid—two wide columns for the main text flow and a narrow sidebar for headings, pull quotes and selected images. Pages displaying images only are based on a basic 3 x 3 grid.
We’ve convinced you (we hope!) of the power and flexibility of the grid. Now, we’ll encourage you to break the rules and occasionally break out of the grid.
Add impact and visual interest to a layout by extending an element out to the page edge or even across the entire spread.
This works especially well for presenting large images.
Try positioning some elements outside of the grid. On the right page of the newsletter spread below, see how the text frame containing the pull quote is centred on the page, breaking the underlying three-column grid structure.
If you’re feeling adventurous, why not break the grid by rotating some layout objects (marked in red). Be careful not to overdo this though, and make sure that other elements remain within the grid, or your page will appear disorganized.
Diagonal lines can add interest to a grid layout. In this example, we’ve cut through our columns, but have still aligned the images with the grid.
When planning your layout, you need to have a clear idea of what your finished document should look like, what format is required, the purpose of the document, who will be reading it, how it will be printed, and so on. Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have a better understanding of the type of grid structure required. The following guidelines should help you choose and plan your grid layout.
The most important question to ask yourself is this: “Is the document predominantly text or images?” For lots of text with few images, try a simple two- or three-column grid.
For lots of graphics, photos, or illustrations, four or more columns will give you more scope to place and size these elements.
Do you want to include notes, pull quotes, or other accent information? Is the document hierarchical, with lots of headings and subheadings? If so, consider an asymmetrical grid with a sidebar column.
For complex documents—for example, a newsletter containing a mix of text and graphics—grids with more columns and/or rows provide more design options. However, avoid making the grid too complex or you’ll lose sight of the underlying structure.
Newsletters usually contain more text so simple column-based layouts tend to work best. For more sophisticated publications, such as illustrated books, more columns will provide more design options. Publications with mainly small articles and graphics—a sales brochure or catalogue, for example—are more suited to grids containing both columns and rows.
In this tutorial, our main objective was to illustrate the power and flexibility of the grid, and explain why it is such an important document design tool. We'll leave you with a few tips:
Don’t confine page elements to individual grid units. In grids with four or more columns, text and images can span several grid units.
Leave some grid units empty, or use them for accents such as small photos, adjacent caps, headlines, and so on.
Use your gutters and margins. Extending some images and headlines into the bleed area can add interest to a layout.
For step-by-step instructions on setting up a grid structure from scratch, see the Creating Page Layouts tutorial.